Lebanon vote weakens Hizbollah bloc as reformists book gains

Electoral delegates for Lebanon's Shi'ite groups Amal (left) and Hizbollah outside a polling station in Beirut. PHOTO: AFP

BEIRUT (AFP) - An election in crisis-hit Lebanon appears to have dealt a setback to the biggest bloc, led by the Iran-backed Shi'ite Muslim Hizbollah party, and boosted reformists, provisional results showed on Monday (May 16).

Turnout was low for the general election on Sunday, the first since the Mediterranean country was plunged into a deep economic crisis that has stoked popular fury with the hereditary and graft-tainted ruling class.

Many polling booths lacked electricity, forcing voters to use their smartphone lights to cast their ballots, in a reflection of Lebanon's most painful crisis since the 1975 to 1990 civil war.

Official results later on Monday will show whether Hizbollah, a political and military movement seen as a state within a state, and its allies can keep an actionable majority in Lebanon's 128-seat Parliament.

Hizbollah retained all its seats, but its Christian allies, President Michel Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), suffered losses.

The Lebanese Forces (LF) of former warlord Samir Geagea, which has strong ties with Saudi Arabia, won several new seats and should emerge as the largest Christian party.

New opposition candidates also booked some gains, pushing forward the agenda of a cross-sectarian protest movement that erupted in late 2019 against a ruling elite widely seen as inept and corrupt.

Whatever the final election outcome, observers expect months of haggling over the next government line-up, and yet more political paralysis at a time Lebanon needs a bailout by the International Monetary Fund.

Election turnout was just 41 per cent - eight points lower than in 2018 - suggesting that the traditional sectarian parties that have shared power like a cartel for three decades failed to mobilise their supporters.

"Abstention is partly linked to frustration with the political class and the feeling that the economic situation will not change," said Lebanese analyst Karim Bitar.

'Build a country'

Turnout was particularly low in Sunni Muslim areas, after former premier Saad Hariri triggered a de facto boycott in his community by pulling out of the elections.

Some of the politicians most reviled by the reform camp suffered stinging losses, including several MPs who had traditionally represented the interests of neighbour and former occupying force Syria.

New opposition parties produced a strong showing in various parts of the country. While the reformists struggled to unite ahead of the vote, they could end up holding enough seats to have an unprecedented impact on the country's political game.

A presence of 10 or more lawmakers could disrupt the horsetrading between political barons that has characterised Lebanese politics for decades and leave new reformists in a kingmaking position.

One voter who backed opposition candidates, 32-year-old Jad Abdel Karim, said that "even if hopes of success are small, we voted to show them that they are not alone in the country".

"We want to build a country even if it will take time," he added.

Lebanese voters using their smartphone lights to check for their names on the voters' list during a power cut inside a polling station in Beirut on May 15, 2022. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Presidential election

The election was held amid an unprecedented crisis for Lebanon, which defaulted on its debt two years ago, and where the currency has since lost 95 per cent of its value.

The other major cataclysm suffered by Lebanon was the enormous Beirut port explosion of August 2020 that killed more than 200 people, injured thousands and devastated swathes of the city.

Political heavyweights across the party spectrum have obstructed any meaningful investigation into the blast.

Two of the main suspects over the disaster, which is widely blamed on state negligence and corruption, even looked sure to have secured re-election in Sunday's polls.

Several irregularities in the polling process were reported, as well as scuffles and cases of voter intimidation.

The outcome of the vote could have an impact on a presidential election due later this year.

President Aoun, 88, has long been expected to be succeeded by his son-in-law, FPM leader Gebran Bassil - but Mr Bassil's bid suffered a massive blow with the surge of the Lebanese Forces (LF).

Mr Marc Saad, an LF spokesman, voiced optimism about the coming electoral battle for the head of state.

"We can say that the Lebanese people have punished the governing parties and have aligned with us, expressing their will for a new start in governance," he told AFP.

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