Election observers from the European Union leave their hotel in Beirut on May 4, 2018. (Hassan Ammar/AP)
BEIRUT — Much has changed in Lebanon in the nine years since its last election.
Next door, Syria has been ravaged by war, and more than 2 million refugees have sought sanctuary in Lebanon. A long-exiled former general is now president.
But most notably, the militant group Hezbollah, which was still in the early years of its political rise back in 2009, is now ascendant.
Hezbollah’s main hope in the election Sunday is that its allies win enough seats to lift the Hezbollah-led alliance to a slight parliamentary majority — and by doing so, mark another milestone on its path to political dominance.
Founded with Iranian support in the 1980s, the group has risen from resistance movement to fully fledged political player. At home, it provides an extensive network of social services to its supporters. Abroad, it has served as an enforcer of Iran’s regional strategy, sending cadres to fight in Syria and Yemen.
With a majority in parliament, Hezbollah would be able to more tightly direct Lebanon’s foreign and defense policies and align them with Iranian interests in the Middle East.
“Hezbollah is very patient. They play the long game, and they know that time is with them,” said Joseph Bahout, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “They are not doing anything that would openly threaten or provoke. They are just covering their interests.”
In an attempt to encourage consensus-building, Lebanon’s new electoral law has gerrymandered the country into 15 provinces of differing sizes and populations. Yet most parties — aside from the Shiite parties, Hezbollah and Amal — have been unable to form joint electoral lists at the national level, instead opting for local alliances to contest various seats.
“Even if Hezbollah is not a winner in terms of seats, then it will have a more dispersed and scattered parliament that is easier to navigate than ever before,” Bahout said.
Ahead of Sunday’s vote, politicians have been out in force, glad-handing supporters with promises of change.
Hezbollah has faced unusually strong electoral challenges in its heartland of Baalbek, an eastern city close to Lebanon’s border with Syria. On Tuesday, Hezbollah supporters set green-and-yellow banners aloft as their leader, Hasan Nasrallah, urged people to provide the group with “political protection” against those conspiring against it.
But more broadly, Hezbollah’s place as the most influential player in Lebanese politics is no longer seriously disputed. While debate over the group’s weapons stockpiles and military ambitions have been key issues in previous elections, these have been largely absent from the public debate this time.
In the Beirut suburb of Dahiyeh, supporters voiced loyalty to Nasrallah, known to many there as Sayed Hasan, denoting descent from the prophet Muhammad. “If Sayed Hasan has not personally intervened with his speeches, people would not have cared to cast ballots. For his sake, they changed their mind,” said one man, who gave his name as Hussein.
But critics of the movement described its influence in more troubling terms. Nadim Gemayel, a parliamentary candidate and the son of assassinated 1982 president-elect Bashir Gemayel, said he saw Hezbollah’s intensified campaign as an attempt to win parliamentary control as a form of legitimacy for its paramilitary stockpiles.
“They have grown to be an arsenal way more powerful than the Lebanese army,” said Gemayel.
Even beyond foreign and defense policy, the stakes were already high for the average voter. Lebanon has been buffeted in recent years by economic woes, regional strife and the Syrian refugee crisis. Trash regularly piles up on the streets without collection, and problems with the water and electricity supply are endemic.
Analysts, however, predict that voter apathy and the new electoral law’s complexity could suppress turnout. In Beirut on Friday, Laila Saade, a housewife, said she would not be participating.
“Why should I vote? They are all the same [guys], and nothing will change,” she said.