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High stakes in Lebanon's election

A win for Hezbollah and its allies Sunday would tip the region’s balance of power toward Iran.

(Page 3 of 3)

Christians have the decisive vote

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Walid Jumblatt, the leader of Lebanon's Druze community and one of the sharpest political operators in Lebanon, sips from a glass of iced mineral water, his thin lanky frame slumped in a garden chair in the cobbled courtyard of his Beirut mansion.

Casually dressed in jeans and white shirt, he has just returned from a long day's electioneering in Druze districts of the western Bekaa Valley. A leader of the March 14 block and until recently an outspoken critic of Hezbollah, Mr. Jumblatt has softened his tone of late, sensing the shifting balance of power in Lebanon. But he knows that the outcome of the election rests mainly with Christian voters in the Metn and Keserwan districts north of Beirut and in the town of Zahle in the Bekaa Valley.

"Which way will the Christians vote?" he asks. "The last week will be decisive."

His March 14 colleague, Saad Hariri, who heads the Future Movement, has ruled out joining a government of national unity if the opposition wins the election, preferring to let Hezbollah and its allies shoulder the responsibilities of leadership alone. Jumblatt says he too, as a member of March 14, is inclined not to participate in a coalition government. But he leaves some room for maneuver.

"Let's wait and see what is decided after the election," he says. "We will have to play by the rules of the game."

Will an independent bloc bridge the divide?

The real winner may turn out to be neither from the Hezbollah-led opposition nor March 14. Lebanese President Michel Suleiman has tacitly entered the electoral race by endorsing candidates for a so-called independent parliamentary bloc that could end up holding the balance of power between the two main rival factions.

"All the statistics show that any new majority is going to be very small and the minority is going to be very large. This will not make things easier in ending bottlenecks in the government and parliament," says Nazem al-Khoury, an independent candidate allied to President Suleiman, his former neighbor. "The president feels there is a need for a regulatory bloc that will help parliament and the cabinet to function effectively and break this perpetual deadlock."

The president's intervention in the elections does not sit well with the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), the opposition's largest Christian party, headed by former premier and Army commander Michel Aoun. Its leaders suspect that the independent bloc is a means of leaching votes away from them for the benefit of March 14.

"The aim is to try and reduce General Aoun's Christian presence in the political system," says Ibrahim Kanaan, a parliamentarian with the FPM. "The president doesn't need an independent bloc. It discredits him [to become involved in the elections]."

An outcome of far-reaching implications

Flawed and corrupt though they may be, the Lebanese elections nonetheless retain a flavor of vibrant democracy that is sorely lacking in many other countries in the region. And, most assuredly, many eyes will be closely scrutinizing Lebanon's June 7 polls, the outcome of which will ripple across the Middle East, helping shape and influence the dynamics of the region.

Asked if Lebanon can find some peace and stability, Mr. Khoury says, "Tell me what will happen between Syria and Iran and the US and Iran, then I can answer you.

"It's always been this way," he adds. "But now Lebanon is even more greatly implicated in all the major issues of the region."