Lebanese Vote in High-Stakes Polls

Lebanese cast their votes on Sunday, June 7, in a high-stakes general polls pitting a West-backed bloc against an alliance led by Hezbollah and its main Christian ally, amid predictions that any winner would clinch victory by just a few seats.

"We are voting so that the Lebanese can decide their own fate," Fadia Saade, 37, told Agence France Presse (AFP) as she waited in line to cast her ballot in the town of Jounieh north of Beirut.

"We don’t want any outside interference."

About 3.26 million Lebanese went to polling stations at 7:00 am (0400 GMT) to elect members of the 128-seat parliament from between candidates of the March 14 coalition and the Hezbollah-led March 8 bloc.

Many Voters, sporting their party colors, lined up outside the polling stations even before the vote opened.

The vote was taking place amid heavy security measures with the army and police deployed in force over the 26 electoral districts to prevent any outbreak of violence.

Polls are due to close at 7pm local time (16:00 GMT).

More than 200 international observers from the European Union, the Carter Center and other institutions and countries are overseeing the election.

The race for the 128-member parliament is expected to set the political course in the tiny Arab country for the next four years.

The US, which backs the March 14 alliance and considers Hezbollah a terrorist group, is following the election and is expected to suspend military aid if the opposition wins.

The Sunni-led coalition, which holds majority in parliament, swept to power in 2005 over a wave of public sympathy following the shocking assassination of former premier Rafiq Hariri in Beirut.

The alliance, however, struggled to govern in the face of a paralyzing and sometimes violent power struggle with Hezbollah and its allies.

Tight Race

The race is very tight and a handful of key battleground constituencies are likely to be crucial in determining the winner.

Pollsters predict the outcome will largely be decided by the voting in divided Christian districts which back both rival groups.

Some analysts forecast a narrow victory for the bloc led by Hezbollah and its main Christian ally, Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement.

Others expect the formation of a broad coalition cabinet, including parties from both sides, regardless of the result.

The Lebanese independent daily Al Anwar said the vote takes place amid deep political divisions that are hard to merge.

"The music voters have listened to in recent month is that of war drums and dramatic scenarios that give the impression that election day is apocalyptic and that the vote is a choice between two Lebanons," it said.

"But everyone knows that we will not emerge from the crisis we’re in after the election."

Lebanon fell into a political crisis after the withdrawal of Shiite ministers from the government.

The crisis led to a six-month vacancy in the presidential seat and triggered sectarian clashes that killed more than 100 people.

But the crisis was solved after the Lebanese rivals reached an agreement in Doha under which army chief Michel Suleiman was elected president.

"There won’t be any major problems today, but when the result is announced tomorrow, there could be a big problem," Ali Breiyteh, 25, a taxi driver in Beirut, told Reuters.

Former US president Jimmy Carter, who heads a team of international observers, urged the Lebanese parties and their foreign backers to accept the result of the vote.

"I don’t have any concerns over the conduct of the elections. I have concerns over the acceptance of the results by all the major parties," he said after visiting a polling station in Beirut.

"All the international observers hope and encourage all the parties to accept the result of the election whether they win or lose."

(IslamOnline.net and Agencies)

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