BEIRUT (AP) – The Iran-backed Hezbollah group and its political allies made significant gains in Sunday’s parliamentary elections in Lebanon while the main Western-backed faction lost a third of its seats, according to preliminary results released Monday.
The initial results, which were carried by Lebanese media and are more or less expected to match the official count, show that Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a Sunni politician with close ties to Saudi Arabia, has lost at least five seats in Beirut, once considered his party’s stronghold.
Hariri told reporters that his Future Movement won 21 seats in Sunday’s vote, a drop of 11 from what they got in the 2009 elections. He blamed a new electoral law and a performance “that wasn’t up to the standard.” Hariri would still have the largest Sunni bloc in parliament, facilitating his return as prime minister to form the next government.
“My hand is extended to every Lebanese who participated in the elections to preserve stability and create jobs,” Hariri said in a televised statement Monday. He said he would continue to work closely with President Michel Aoun, who is allied with the rival, Hezbollah-led bloc.
Hezbollah and its allies appear to have gained seats, giving another boost to Iran’s allies in Lebanon and neighboring Syria, where Tehran’s influence has grown in recent years as it has provided crucial support to President Bashar Assad.
The elections were the first since war broke out in Syria in 2011, sending over 1 million refugees to Lebanon, a small country with a population estimated at around 4.5 million. The war has divided Lebanon, pitting parties supporting Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria against Saudi-aligned parties opposed to it. The divide reflects the region-wide rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Iran welcomed the initial election results, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi saying that his country will “support and cooperate” with any government that is elected by a majority.
The unofficial results indicate Sunni voters are losing faith in Hariri’s party amid a declining Saudi role in Lebanon, a deteriorating economy and general exasperation over the civil war in neighboring Syria, which has brought more than a million refugees to Lebanon.
Official results are expected to be announced by Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk later on Monday, although no time has been set. Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, is scheduled to speak later in the day.
The next Cabinet, like the outgoing one, will likely be a unity government that includes Hezbollah.
Hezbollah and its allies appear set to easily take more than 43 seats in the 128-seat parliament, which would enable them to veto any laws the Shiite militant group opposes. Hezbollah itself appears to have added one seat, giving it a total of 13. Other pro-Syrian factions made their strongest showing since Damascus ended a nearly three-decade military presence in Lebanon in 2005.
Hezbollah is considered a terrorist organization by the United States, while the European Union differentiates between its political and armed wings. Hezbollah has sent thousands of fighters to Syria to shore up Assad’s forces, and its alleged military involvement in Iraq and Yemen has led many Sunni Gulf countries to brand it a terrorist group.
The election, the first to be held in nine years, was marked by a lower turnout than before, reflecting voter frustration over endemic corruption. Machnouk put national turnout at 49 percent, compared to 54 percent in 2009. In Beirut precincts, the turnout was between 32 percent and 42 percent.
The drop came despite a reformulated electoral law designed to encourage voting through proportional representation. But many, including Machnouk, blamed the new, complex law for the tepid turnout, particularly in Beirut.
The preliminary results show at least one candidate from a civil society list – journalist Paula Yaacoubian – won a seat in the capital, an area traditionally monopolized by established political parties.
Some of Hariri’s Sunni supporters saw him as being too soft on Hezbollah, and the billionaire businessman also faced criticism after sacking dozens of employees from his companies in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, largely due to Saudi spending cuts.
The new election law also allowed Sunni rivals to contest the elections.
“Clearly, the Future Movement no longer monopolizes the Sunni votes,” said political analyst Ibrahim Bayram. He said that while Hariri is still likely to form the next government, he is now weaker and new conditions are likely to be imposed on him.
The biggest winner so far is the right-wing Christian Lebanese Forces, which almost doubled its number of seats to 15. The group has vowed to combat the country’s rampant corruption.