BEIRUT (AP) – The Iran-backed Hezbollah group and its political allies scored significant gains in Sunday’s parliamentary elections in Lebanon while the Western-backed Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Future Movement sustained losses, according to preliminary and unofficial results published in Lebanese media Monday.
The results, which are more or less expected to match the official count, show that Hariri, a Sunni politician with close ties to Saudi Arabia, has so far lost five seats in Beirut, once considered his party’s stronghold.
If confirmed, the results would be yet another boost for Iran’s allies in Lebanon and neighboring Syria, where it has seen its strength steadily grow over the past few years.
This indicates Sunni voters are losing faith in Hariri’s party amid a stagnant economy and general exasperation over the civil war in neighboring Syria, which has brought 1 million refugees to Lebanon. Hariri would still have the largest Sunni bloc in parliament, facilitating his return as prime minister to form the next government despite the losses.
Official results are expected to be announced by Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk later on Monday, although no time has been set. Both Hariri and the Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, were expected to speak later in the day.
The next Lebanon government, like the outgoing one, will likely be a unity government that incorporates Hariri’s opponents from the Shiite Hezbollah group.
Hezbollah and its allies appear set to take at least 47 seats in the 128-seat parliament, which would enable them to veto any laws the Shiite militant group opposes. The group, according to the unofficial results, added one seat and now has a bloc of 13 in parliament, known as “Loyalty to the Resistance” bloc.
Pro-Syrian politicians made their strongest comeback since Damascus ended a nearly three-decade military presence in 2005. Hardcore Syrian allies that were elected on Sunday include former security chief Jamil Sayyed, former deputy parliament speaker Elie Firzly and former Defense Minister Abdul-Rahim Murad.
The Hezbollah group is considered a terrorist organization by the United States, while the European Union lists Hezbollah’s military wing as terrorist, differentiating between its military and political activities. Hezbollah has sent thousands of its fighters to Syria to shore up President Bashar Assad’s forces. That, and its intervention in Iraq and Yemen, has led several oil-rich Gulf states to also name it as 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 and a stagnant economy. 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 which redrew constituency districts for the tepid turnout particularly in Beirut.
The preliminary results show at least one candidate from a civil society list – a woman journalist – won a seat in parliament.
The two largest blocs in the outgoing parliament, those of President Michel Aoun and Hariri, lost some of their seats but they still have the largest Christian and Sunni Muslim bloc. Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement now has 21 seats, six less than what they had, while Hariri’s Future Movement now holds 20 seats, a sharp drop from the 32 seats they won in 2009.
The biggest winner so far is the right-wing Christian Lebanese Forces that almost doubled its seats to 15. The group has been aggressively working on marketing itself as a main force against widespread corruption in the country that has been endangering the economy.
The main race was between a Western and Saudi-backed coalition headed by Hariri and the Tehran-backed Hezbollah, part of a region-wide power struggle that is tearing apart the Middle East.
The elections were the first since war broke out in neighboring 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 on Assad’s side against Saudi-aligned parties opposed to it.
Associated Press writers Zeina Karam and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.