Lebanese streamed to their hometowns on the Mediterranean coast and high in the mountains Sunday to vote in a crucial election that could unseat a pro-Western government and install one dominated by the Iranian-backed militant group Hezbollah.
The race for the 128-member parliament will set Lebanon's political course for the next four years, with repercussions beyond this tiny Arab country's borders. A win for the Shiite militant group, which the United States considers a terrorist organisation, and its allies could bring isolation to Lebanon and possibly a new conflict with Israel.
It could also set back US Mideast policy and boost the influence of Hezbollah's backers Syria and Iran.
"I voted for the first time in my life today simply because these elections will decide in which direction the country will go," said Elie Yacoub, a voter in his 30s who cast his ballot in Beirut.
Lebanon has long been a main front in what many see as a power struggle between two main camps in the Mideast -- the US and its moderate Arab allies Saudi Arabia and Egypt on one side, and Iran and Syria and militant groups such as Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas on the other.
A steady stream of vehicles headed south, north or east from Beirut to outlying parts of the country early Sunday, a weekend here, carrying voters to hometowns. Some vehicles had flags of political groups fluttering to show loyalty.
Voters lined up outside polling stations in government buildings and public schools across the country after polls opened. There are some 3.2 million eligible voters out of a population of 4 million. Early unofficial returns were expected late Sunday and official results as early as Monday afternoon.
Army troops in armoured carriers and in trucks took up positions on major highways to ensure peaceful voting. Authorities have deployed some 50,000 soldiers and police.
President Michel Suleiman was among the early voters, casting his ballot in his hometown of Amchit on the coast north of Beirut. "Democracy is a blessing that distinguishes Lebanon in the Middle East, and we must preserve it," he told reporters. There were widespread complaints about delays in the process, forcing voters to stand in lines. Interior Minister Ziyad Baroud asked people to be patient.
Scores of foreign observers, including former President Jimmy Carter, will monitor the vote.
Speaking at a polling station in Beirut's Christian sector of Ashrafieh, Carter expressed hope the US, Iran and other countries "will accept the results of the election and not try to interfere in the process."
Going into the election, the race for a majority appears too close to call. In the outgoing parliament, the pro-Western bloc had 70 seats and Hezbollah's alliance had 58.
The vote is the latest chapter in four tumultuous years for Lebanon that began with the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005 in a car bombing. The pro-Western factions swept into power in elections the same year on a sympathy vote. But the government has been virtually paralysed since by the power struggle with Hezbollah.
The campaign has been bruising, with accusations of vote-buying by both sides. Outside a Beirut polling place Sunday, one man said he was willing to vote for whoever would pay him the most. Hezbollah's coalition includes the Shiite movement Amal and a major Christian faction led by former army chief Michel Aoun. Opposing it are the overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim supporters of current majority leader Saad Hariri, allied with several Christian and Druse factions.
Lebanese tend to vote mainly along sectarian or family loyalties. Sunni Muslim and Shiite Muslim districts around the country are largely locked up, so the battle has been over the Christian districts, where some races are a tossup.
Hezbollah's Christian allies argue that a victory by their coalition will not have such a dramatic impact and will ensure peace in a nation divided by sectarian tensions. They say that involving Hezbollah more deeply in the political process -- rather than shunning it -- is the only way to bridge the sectarian divides. Their opponents counter that the heavily armed Hezbollah would be driving Lebanon into the arms of Iran, which could use it as a front in the Islamic republic's confrontation with Israel. The influential Maronite Catholic Church has remained largely neutral.
But on Saturday, church head Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir warned voters Lebanon as an entity and its Arab identity were threatened, a clear reference to the Hezbollah alliance. The election commission ordered the statement withdrawn from circulation because it violated an order limiting political statements 24 hours before voting.