Lebanon Votes in Election Dominated by Regional Tensions

BEIRUT—Lebanese headed to the polls Sunday to choose a new government in the country’s first election in nearly a decade, a vote that has become a proxy contest between regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran.

With the election unfolding in the shadow of a war in neighboring Syria, regional tensions have eclipsed debate about policy in Lebanon. The main candidates have cast themselves as loyal to either Riyadh or Tehran, which are vying for greater influence in the region.

Saudi Arabia supports the incumbent prime minister,

Saad Hariri,

and his Future Movement party, while Iran backs Hezbollah, a political group that also fights in Syria in the form of a militia. The Future Movement and Hezbollah are part of Lebanon’s current coalition government that was formed after years of political impasse.

Western countries, which see the rare Arab democracy as a bastion against Iranian power, have pledged billions of dollars in soft loans to Mr. Hariri’s government in recent weeks to provide a counterbalance to Hezbollah.

“Let me be clear: Beirut will not become Damascus, or San’a or Baghdad,” Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk, a member of Mr. Hariri’s party, said when meeting voters in the capital last week, referring to regional capitals under the influence of Iran.

Hezbollah chief

Hassan Nasrallah,

meanwhile, urged his supporters to vote, “because the Saudi crown prince is ready to spend billions of dollars to formulate sedition against [Hezbollah],” he said Tuesday in a televised speech from a bunker. Mr. Nasrallah rarely appears in public to avoid potential assassination attempts.

The legislative election has been postponed several times due to concerns about security and a dispute over a new electoral law. But while highly anticipated, Sunday’s vote—the first since 2009—is unlikely to bring about significant change.

Lebanon’s political system is based on power sharing, with parliament split evenly between Christians and Muslims. Most voters cast their ballots along sectarian lines, hampering outsiders from competing.

The makeup of the current government is a fragile compromise, brokered in 2016 after a lengthy government paralysis. Both Mr. Hariri’s Sunni-dominated Future Movement party and Shiite Hezbollah form part of the government, with the prime minister and the Christian president appointed with tacit agreement from Tehran and Riyadh.

“It would be a big surprise if [Hariri] did not come back as prime minister,” said Sami Atallah, director at the Beirut-based Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, an independent research body.

Riyadh provides financial support for Mr. Hariri, who also has substantial business interests in Saudi Arabia. Tehran funds most of Hezbollah’s operations, though no parties in Lebanon disclose the amount or source of election funding they receive.

“All the parties are funded from abroad and work for those that fund them. Let’s not pretend this isn’t happening,” said Mohammad, a 64-year-old taxi driver from Sidon, a city near Beirut. He declined to give his full name but said he plans to vote.

Most Lebanese are eager for change. Years of corruption and nepotism have squandered public funds and damaged the country’s infrastructure. Lebanon continues to suffer from inadequate garbage collection and haphazard electricity supply.

The Lebanese economy is growing at around 2% annually, while its fiscal deficit stands at 10% of gross domestic product and public debt amounts to about 150% of GDP—one of the world’s highest.

In the face of such problems, an alliance of political outsiders has emerged to challenge the established parties, pledging to ditch crony sectarianism to deal with immediate political problems, including women’s issues and LGBTQ rights.

“This is a democracy, but a failed one,” Paula Yacoubian, a famous TV presenter running on a civil society list in Beirut, said in an interview during her campaign. “We need people we can hold accountable.”

The number of female candidates has grown sevenfold to 86 since the 2009 elections. Most parties except Hezbollah have fielded women, but their numbers are still small compared with the 583 candidates in total in this election.

The country’s problems are exacerbated by the seven-year war in Syria, which has forced 1.5 million refugees across the border and threatened Lebanon’s resolve to remain a neutral party in the region.

At no point was that more evident than in November when Mr. Hariri, on a sudden trip to Riyadh, was coerced to resign, diplomats say, in what seemed a punishment for his inability to curb Hezbollah’s regional influence. He retracted his resignation weeks later.

To boost Mr. Hariri’s position ahead of the elections, and to preserve Lebanon’s stability as a shelter for refugees who might otherwise seek to travel to Europe, donors pledged more than $11 billion in loans for infrastructure projects during a conference in Paris last month.

The support included a $1 billion credit line to Lebanon from Saudi Arabia, which two years ago halted all military aid to the country in protest against Hezbollah’s growing control.

Write to Sune Engel Rasmussen at sune.rasmussen@wsj.com


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