Hezbollah and its political allies won just over half the seats in Lebanon’s parliamentary elections, unofficial results showed, boosting an Iranian-backed movement fiercely opposed to Israel and underlining Tehran’s growing regional influence.
If confirmed, the preliminary results cited by politicians and media might also add to the risks facing Lebanon, reliant on U.S. military help and hoping to secure billions of dollars in international aid and loans to revive its stagnant economy.
Branded a terrorist group by the United States, Hezbollah has grown in strength since joining the war in Syria in support of President Bashar al-Assad in 2012. Its powerful position in Lebanon reflects Tehran’s ascendancy in territory stretching through Iraq and Syria to Beirut.
The unofficial tally in the first parliamentary elections in nine years indicated sharp losses for Western-backed Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri. But he was still set to emerge as the Sunni Muslim leader with the biggest bloc in the 128-seat house, making him the frontrunner to form the next government.
Lebanon’s prime minister must be a Sunni in the country’s sectarian power-sharing system. The new government, like the outgoing one, is expected to include all the main parties. Talks over Cabinet posts are expected to take time.
International donors want to see Beirut embark on serious economic reforms to reduce state debt levels before they will release billions pledged at a Paris conference in April.
Lebanon has been a big recipient of foreign aid to help it cope with hosting one million refugees who fled the war in neighboring Syria, equal to one-in-four of the population.
The election was held under a complex new law that redrew constituency boundaries and changed the electoral system from winner-takes-all to a proportional one. The interior minister said official results would be declared on Monday.
An Israeli security cabinet minister said the gains in the vote showed that Israel should not distinguish between the Lebanese state and Hezbollah in any future war.
The staunchly anti-Hezbollah Lebanese Forces, a Christian party, appears to have emerged as a big winner, nearly doubling its MPs to 15 from eight, according to the initial indications.
Hezbollah, along with allied groups and individuals, secured at least 67 seats, according to a Reuters calculation based on preliminary results for nearly all the seats obtained from politicians and campaigns and reported in Lebanese media.
Hezbollah’s allies include the Shiite Amal Movement led by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and the Christian Free Patriotic Movement established by President Michel Aoun, a Hezbollah ally since 2006 who has said its arsenal is needed to defend Lebanon.
Hezbollah-backed Sunnis did well in Beirut, Tripoli and Sidon, strongholds of Hariri’s Future Movement, the preliminary results showed. The pro-Hezbollah al-Akhbar newspaper declared the election “the slap” for Hariri on its front page.
Hezbollah-backed winners include Jamil al-Sayyed, a retired Shiite general and former Lebanese intelligence chief who is a close friend of Assad.
Sayyed was one of the most powerful men in Lebanon in the 15 years of Syrian domination that followed the 1975-90 civil war.
At least five other figures who held office during that era returned to parliament for the first time since Syrian forces withdrew from Lebanon after the assassination of Rafik al-Hariri, Saad’s father, in 2005.
Faisal Karami, the son of the late pro-Syrian Prime Minister Omar Karami, won a seat for the first time.
Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah was due to speak about the results later on Monday.
But Hezbollah lost ground in one of its strongholds, the Baalbek-Hermel constituency. Two of the 10 seats there were won by its opponents, one going to the Lebanese Forces and the other to Future. It failed to win a Shiite seat in the ancient coastal town of Byblos.
Turnout was 49.2 percent, down from 54 percent the last time legislative elections were held nine years ago.
Independent candidates running against the political establishment may have won two seats in Beirut.
Lebanon should have held a parliamentary election in 2013 but MPs instead voted to extend their own term because leaders could not agree on a new parliamentary election law.
An anti-Hezbollah alliance led by Hariri and backed by Saudi Arabia won a majority in parliament in 2009.
But that “March 14” alliance has disintegrated and Saudi Arabia has switched its attention and resources to confronting Iran in other parts of the region, notably Yemen. Hariri may have lost nearly a third of his 33 seats.
Samir Geagea, the Lebanese Forces leader, said the results showed there was a “popular ground” that backs March 14 and would “give us strength and a push to fix the path much more than we were able to in the past years.”
Geagea is Hezbollah’s most prominent Lebanese Christian opponent. He led the Lebanese Forces militia in the last years of the civil war, during which he was an adversary of Aoun.
The question of Hezbollah’s weapons has slipped down the political agenda in Lebanon in recent years. Hezbollah has grown militarily more powerful since 2012, deploying its terrorists to Syria and Iraq where it has fought in support of Iranian allies.
Hariri, who led years of political conflict with the group, says it is an issue to be resolved regionally through dialogue.
The Lebanon vote is to be followed on May 12 by an Iraqi election that is also set to underline Iran’s reach, with one of three pro-Tehran Shiite leaders set to become prime minister.
Enhanced Hezbollah sway over Lebanon will likely alarm the United States, which arms and trains the Lebanese army.
But the group and its allies are not on course to win the two-thirds majority that would allow them to pass big decisions alone such as changing the constitution.