Hezbollah, Allies Poised For Strong Election

BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) Lebanon finds itself at the crossroads again in crucial parliamentary elections that could determine the country's future for the next four years, after the recent past brought sporadic targeted bombings, a destructive Israeli-prosecuted war, rebuilding, and political turmoil.

Voters face stark choices Sunday: handing power to the Iranian and Syrian-backed Hezbollah alliance or renewing the mandate of a Western-backed coalition.

An election win for Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah's Shite group, its Shite allies, Amal, and Maronite Christian allies from the Free Patriotic Movement would signify a seismic shift in both Lebanon's and the region's balance.

Hezbollah's election billboard decries "Corruption, Debt and Deprivation" - the motto of a political party, though the group gained it's political power, enemies would say it's notoriety, as an armed and well-trained resistance movement harrying Israel from its occupation of the nation's south in 2000, and was lauded across the Arab World as victors against the might of the Israeli army in the summer war of 2006.

Internally, Hezbollah emerged triumphant from protests that paralysed the seat of government in Beirut for over a year, and flexed its muscles by briefly taken over parts West Beirut in echoes of the civil war whose dark days no-one wanted to return to.

Deputy Hezbollah leader Sheikh Naim Kassem spoke to AP Television in Beiruti's Southern suburbs, which still bear the scars of Israeli bombardment, and said the opposition expected victory: "We, as Hezbollah, are still expecting the opposition to win the majority (in parliament). So all the developments taking place over the last few weeks have been positive developments in favour of winning"

Shiekh Kassem also suggested some western nations are laying the groundwork for a Hezbollah majority.

"Embassies of foreign countries, European in particular, have contacted us and their ambassadors or representatives have informed us that they will deal with any outcome of the parliamentary elections, and that they will not be hostile to Hezbollah or the opposition in the event of the opposition winning parliamentary majority," he said.

It's quite clear Washington would prefer not to do business with Hezbollah, but the Obama administration is less likely to take the view of its predecessors , who called for democracy in the region then blanched when Hamas won democratic elections in the Palestinian territories, something the new US president has alluded to most recently in his speech in Cairo this week.

They may however choose to withhold substantial aid, though it would seem such a punitive measure would go against the grain of Obama's latest pronouncements to the region.

Hezbollah and Amal do have opponents within their own community.

Ahmad Al-Asaad, Head of Lebanese Option Party, a third Shiite party thought to have the backing of Saudi Arabia, told AP Television "It is essential to break the monopoly of Hezbollah on the Shia community and to really reflect the wishes of the Lebanese Shia which is completely different than the image people see and think and therefore this is the key to solving Lebanon's dilemma and moving forward."

The most unusual, some would say forward thinking, alliance in a country where one's religion usually determines one's politics has brought Christians together with Shiite Hezbollah.

The Patriotic Free Movement, a Christian political party lead by a former Lebanese army chief General Michel Aoun who fought a failed "war of liberation" against the Syrians in one of the last bloody chapters of the ruinous 15 year civil war, is allied with Hezbollah based on a Memorandum of Understanding.

It has shaken up Lebanon's politics, and backers say it represents the future of the long sectarian divided nation.

It is ironic that the Aoun party "Be Beautiful and Vote" ad is heavily at odds with the deeply conservative Hezbollah - a sign of how different the two groups' constituencies are and how Lebanese elections stress political alliances more than ideology.

Views are mixed in Achrafiyeh, a Christian neighbourhood in the east of city. One man says the alliance is, "a negative accord because it is not really based on confidence or a serious dialogue."

Another says, "the relation will only affect positively on the result of the elections and God willing after the 7th of June we will see what the Memorandum of Understanding will do, we will win."

Many other Lebanese will vote out of sectarian, clan and family loyalties.

Scores of foreign observers, including centres led by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright as well as a mission from the European Union, have descended on Lebanon to monitor the election.

Going into the election, the race has been considered too close to call. Hezbollah is confident its alliance would win a majority of seats in the 128-member legislature. Opponents are similarly certain they would come on top. There are no reliable independent polls.

In the outgoing parliament, the majority, Saad Hariri's Future Bloc, had 70 seats and the minority, including Hezbollah, had 58.

The majority swept to power on a sympathy vote in 2005, shortly after the withdrawal of the Syrian army in the wake of the truck bombing that killed Saad Hariri's father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

The assassination transformed Lebanese politics and forced Damascus to end its 29-year-old dominance of its neighbour under U.S.-led international pressure and street protests.

The leader of the Future Movement Saad Hariri told AP Television during a rally in Beirut, "I think we are doing quite well and I think we will win and Lebanon will see a lot of stability and a lot of prosperity in the economy although the world's economy is not doing well but Lebanon will be doing well."

The Future Bloc comprises mainly Sunni supporters of Hariri, and some Christian and Druse factions.

The election Sunday will cap a bruising campaign between the two main camps.

With Sunni and Shiite districts largely locked up, the battle appears to be in overwhelmingly Christian districts.

Polls were to open at 7 a.m. (0400GMT) Sunday and close 12 hours later at 5,200 polling stations located in government buildings and public schools, scattered from the Mediterranean coastline to the steep mountains and valleys of the interior.

Early unofficial results were expected late Sunday. Official results were expected as early as Monday afternoon.

The government has said it will deploy some 50,000 soldiers and policemen across the country to secure a peaceful balloting. The government suspended all weapons licenses.

Lebanon's sectarian-based division of power and complex alliances across sectarian divides makes it hard for any single party to govern alone and without consensus.

Leaders of the pro-Western coalition have said if they win they would accept a unity government in which the president plays a major role.

Hezbollah has said it would invite its pro-Western opponents to join a national unity government if it wins.

The proposal shows Hezbollah's concern that if it tries to govern Lebanon outright, it could risk international isolation and possibly another Lebanese war with the nation's nemesis - Israel.

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