(Bloomberg) -- Iran-backed Hezbollah and its allies looked set to emerge as the most powerful alliance in Lebanon’s next parliament, underscoring Tehran’s widening regional clout and the growing risk of a direct clash with Israel.
Early results from Sunday’s elections show the alliance led by the Shiite Hezbollah, a political group and armed movement, becoming the largest, with an estimated 56 of parliament’s 128 seats, according to local media. The main loser was the party of Saudi Arabia-backed caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri, which lost a third of its parliamentary seats.
The win has geopolitical implications because of concern in the U.S., Israel and Saudi Arabia about Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East. If an escalating showdown between Israel and Iran over Tehran’s entrenchment in Syria evolves into a direct clash, Hezbollah is likely to be drawn in.
“In any war with Israel, Hezbollah now is sure it controls state institutions, whether it is the government or the parliament,” said Sami Nader, head of the Levant Institute for Strategic Studies. “Not a single law can pass without its vetting.”
In addition, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who’s winning the seven-year war in Syria, “will exercise control over Lebanon through Hezbollah,” Nader added.
Both Iran and Hezbollah have forces in Syria backing Assad. Syria occupied Lebanon from 1976 to 2005, though it continued to exert influence after its withdrawal.
Hezbollah’s chief, Hassan Nasrallah, struck a conciliatory tone after the preliminary election results came in, urging factions to work together to address the country’s problems, and asked his supporters not to gloat.
“The prevailing spirit should be a collaborative one, despite the strategic differences we have,” Nasrallah said in a televised speech.
The elections come at a critical point for the world’s third-most indebted country as it begins to implement reforms to control its ballooning debt, now at 150 percent of gross domestic product. With the economy battered by sectarian conflict and the influx of 1.5 million refugees from the Syrian civil war, the incoming government will have to adopt structural and fiscal reforms to secure $11 billion pledged at a donors’ conference in April.
Hezbollah had been expected to benefit from the collapse of Hariri’s coalition and new electoral laws. Hariri’s Future Movement won 21 seats, the prime minister said at a news conference, down from its current 33, though he remains head of the largest Sunni bloc. Voter turnout was estimated at 49.2 percent. Final results are expected later Monday.
Hezbollah, which was founded after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and is classified as a terrorist organization by the U.S., has faced off with Israel across the decades, including in a monthlong war in 2006.
Naftali Bennett, a member of Israel’s Security Cabinet, said on Twitter that the Lebanese elections results “reinforce what has been our approach for a while: Hezbollah=Lebanon.”
“The State of Israel will not differentiate between the sovereign State of Lebanon and Hezbollah, and will view Lebanon as responsible for any action from within its territory,” he wrote on Twitter.
Hariri retorted: “Israel is looking for any excuse to pounce on us.”
Legislative elections were last held in 2009 and parliament has since extended its own term twice, citing security concerns related to the Syrian conflict and claims by Christian groups and others that they were under-represented under the old vote rules.
The polls were held under a new law based on proportional representation that’s meant to more accurately reflect Lebanon’s complex sectarian demographics.
The current parliament’s term ends on May 20. President Michel Aoun will hold consultations with the new parliamentary blocs to name a prime minister-designate to form a new government.
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