Hezbollah, allies score major gains in Lebanon election
Iran-backed militant group gains veto power while pro-Western bloc loses seats
The leader of Lebanon's Iranian-backed Hezbollah group declared "mission accomplished" Monday after scoring major gains in parliamentary elections, as the main Western-backed faction headed by Prime Minister Saad Hariri lost a third of its seats.
The results of Sunday's election further bolster Iran's allies in Lebanon and neighbouring Syria at a time when Tehran faces growing Israeli threats and the prospect of the United States pulling out of a landmark nuclear deal negotiated with world powers.
They also underline the growing clout of the group in Lebanon where it dominates politically and militarily.
Hariri acknowledged the losses at a news conference in Beirut on Monday, but said "it's not the end of the world." The international community, he said, should look at the results in a "positive way" because they reflect democracy in Lebanon. He blamed his losses on a new election law and a performance by his political party "that wasn't up to the standards."
"My hand is extended to every Lebanese who participated in the elections to preserve stability and create jobs," Hariri said in a televised statement. He said he would continue to work closely with President Michel Aoun, who is allied with the rival, Hezbollah-led bloc.
Hariri told reporters that his Future Movement won 21 seats in Sunday's vote, a decline of 11 from the last election, in 2009. Hariri would still have the largest Sunni bloc in parliament, facilitating his return as prime minister to form the next government.
Hezbollah, which is Shia, and its allies won more than a third of the 128 seats, giving them veto power.
The leader of Hezbollah said the militant group's gains will give it "protection."
Hassan Nasrallah said in a televised speech Monday that the "mission is accomplished" after weeks of campaigning.
Hezbollah, which is considered a terrorist group by Canada and the U.S., but its political wing has long held seats in Lebanon's parliament and is part of Lebanon's outgoing coalition government.
Nasrallah said: "There is a major political, parliamentarian and moral victory for the choice of the resistance."
Hezbollah supporters rode through the streets of Beirut on scooters, honking their horns and waving the militant group's signature yellow flag as some shouted sectarian slogans. Some were attacked with clubs and sticks when they entered a predominantly Sunni district Monday night.
Sectarian, international influences
The election results show that Sunni voters are losing faith in Hariri's party amid a stagnant economy and general exasperation over the war in neighbouring Syria that has brought one million refugees to Lebanon.
Pro-Syrian politicians made their strongest comeback since Damascus ended a nearly three-decade military presence in 2005. Hardcore Syrian allies elected on Sunday include former security chief Jamil Sayyed, former deputy parliament speaker Elie Firzly and former defence minister Abdul-Rahim Murad.
Hezbollah has sent thousands of its fighters to Syria to shore up President Bashar al-Assad's forces. That, and its intervention in Iraq and Yemen, has led several oil-rich Gulf states to name it as a terrorist group.
The election, the first in nine years, was marked by a lower turnout than before, reflecting voter frustration over endemic corruption and a stagnant economy. Machnouk put national turnout at 49 per cent, compared to 54 per cent in 2009. In Beirut precincts, the turnout was between 32 and 42 per cent.
The drop came despite a reformulated electoral law designed to encourage voting through proportional representation. But many, including Machnouk, blamed the new, complex law which redrew constituency districts for the tepid turnout particularly in Beirut.
One candidate from outside Lebanon's established political parties — a journalist named Paula Yacoubian — won a seat in parliament.
The main race in the election was between Hariri's Western and Saudi-backed coalition and the Tehran-backed Hezbollah, part of a region-wide power struggle that is tearing apart the Middle East.
That power struggle may have been in play late last year when Hariri, from Saudi Arabia, delivered a mysterious resignation. He eventually returned to Beirut and rescinded his resignation, the Saudis evidently concerned by the influence of Hezbollah in Lebanese politics.
The elections were the first since war broke out in neighbouring Syria in 2011, sending over one million refugees to Lebanon, a small country with a population of about 4.5 million. The war has divided Lebanon, pitting parties supporting Hezbollah's intervention in Syria on Assad's side against Saudi-aligned parties opposed to it.
With files from CBC News