Lebanon holds high-stakes general election | world | Hindustan Times
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Lebanon holds high-stakes general election

world Updated: Jun 07, 2009 08:56 IST

Lebanon goes to the polls on Sunday in a high-stakes election that could see an Iranian-backed coalition headed by Hezbollah taken the parliamentary majority from a Western-backed alliance.

The vote is being held under tight security, with 50,000 soldiers and police deployed across the country to prevent any of the sectarian violence that has plagued Lebanon for years.

More than 200 international observers from the European Union, the Carter Centre and other institutions and countries will oversee the election.

Polls will be open from 7:00 am to 7:00 pm (0400 GMT to 1600 GMT), with 3.2 million people eligible to vote.

At stake is whether the small Mediterranean country continues to enjoy widespread support from the West and Saudi Arabia or whether it tilts more towards Iran if Hezbollah and its allies win.

The United States, which considers the Shiite Hezbollah to be a terrorist organisation, has already said continued aid to Lebanon hinges on which side emerges victorious.

Analysts and pollsters predict a tight race for the 128-seat parliament, with the winner clinching victory by just a few seats.

A handful of key battleground constituencies are likely to be crucial in determining the outcome, with the Christian vote, which is divided between the two camps, set to tip the scale.

Both the current majority and the opposition have poured millions into the campaign, flying in thousands of their constituents from overseas amid expectations that their ballots could be a deciding factor in a tight race.

Lebanon's complex power-sharing system divides the 128 seats in parliament equally between Christians and Muslims.

Top government posts are also allocated along confessional lines. The president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament a Shiite Muslim.

The current Sunni-led majority in parliament swept to power in 2005 amid a wave of popular discontent following the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri in a car bombing in Beirut.

The murder was widely blamed on Syria, which denied any involvement, and the ensuing public outcry led to Damascus withdrawing its troops after a 29-year presence.

It also marked the beginning of a turbulent period during which Hezbollah was thrust to the political forefront by its 2006 war with Israel in which 1,200 people died in Lebanon, most of them civilians.

Political unrest last year also saw a six-month vacancy in the presidency and sectarian clashes that killed more than 100 people after Hezbollah staged a spectacular takeover of mainly Sunni parts of Beirut.