High stakes in Lebanon's election
A win for Hezbollah and its allies Sunday would tip the region’s balance of power toward Iran.
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Two men – Hamzi, a fighter with Hezbollah, and Jean Fares, an engineering student and a Christian – stand on opposite sides of the Middle East fault line and typify the cultural gulf in Lebanon.Skip to next paragraph
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Dressed in jeans, sneakers, and a blue T-shirt, Hamzi – who declined to give his last name because he was not authorized to speak to the media – resembles any other ordinary young man in Lebanon.
But when his contemporaries are partying or shopping, he can be found kneeling in prayer, on duty in one of Hezbollah's military strongholds, or attending another training session in Iran where he specializes in antitank weapons.
When asked his opinion about the outcome of the June vote, the young, stocky fighter smiles.
"We in Hezbollah have faith that we will win with our opposition allies, and this will be something good for us," he says softly.
For Hamzi and other members of Hezbollah, victory should herald a respite from domestic and international pressure to disarm the party's powerful military apparatus.
"We'll know that the next government is watching our backs, and that the backstabbers will have departed," he says, referring to the current March 14-dominated administration.
'What choice is there?'
In the Sin al-Fil neighborhood of east Beirut, Jean Fares could be the Lebanese antithesis of Hamzi. He prefers riding his 500cc Kawasaki motorcycle along Lebanon's coast and enjoying Beirut's vibrant nightlife rather than fretting about politics. But he says he knows the implications of his ballot.
"Either I vote for an open democratic society or I vote for an Islamist state, a mini-Iran," Mr. Fares says. "What choice is there?"
Since 2006, the US has sent Lebanon some $410 million in military aid to bolster state institutions and undermine Hezbollah's claim to be the sole effective defender of Lebanon.
Yet the military assistance program could be jeopardized if the opposition wins, US Vice President Joe Biden hinted during a brief visit to Beirut in late May. "We will evaluate the shape of our assistance programs based on the composition of the new government and the policies it advocates," he said.
Hezbollah's leaders are mindful of the perceptions that a win will generate internationally.
"Hezbollah does not want to be at the forefront of the next government because of the possible repercussions [from] the West," says Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a Lebanese expert on Hezbollah. "It will probably take a back seat and let its opposition allies front the government."
A razor-thin margin
As few as four or five seats could decide the makeup of the new 128-seat parliament, and parties are pulling out all the stops in hope of victory. Candidates harangue one another each night on seemingly endless political talk shows. Their faces grin from billboards and massive posters, some covering five floors of office blocks on major roads. Even houses in remote mountain villages are smothered with electoral posters and party flags.
Vote-buying long has been a feature of Lebanese elections, and 2009 has been no exception. Observers believe that more money is being spent this year to secure votes than ever before.
The practice has its own established rituals and conventions. Ali, a Shiite from southern Beirut, says his family recently received a visit from a representative lobbying for votes on behalf of a Sunni politician. At the end of his pitch, according to Ali, the official offered each member of the family $1,000.
"He was very insistent that the money was a gift and not a bribe for our vote," Ali chuckles. He says he and his relatives listened politely to the official, thanked him for the offer, and told him they would think about it a few days then get in touch.
"We can't accept his offer. We are with Hezbollah, and that's who we will be voting for," Ali says.