This weekend, Lebanese voters will choose their new government, a choice between a bloc of U.S. allies and a Hezbollah-led coalition, backed by Syria and Iran. Analysts predict a slim victory in either direction, though the outcome could change the political identity of a state long seen as a battleground for regional conflicts.
"This election is about the fate of the country," said Fares Soueid, a Christian parliamentary candidate and secretary-general of the ruling March 14 camp. The Saudi- and U.S.-backed coalition has played up fears of a Hezbollah win as Iranian rule by proxy.
"I don't think anything will drastically change whichever side wins, precisely because it will be such a small margin of victory," said Amal Saad-Ghoreyeb, an analyst close to Hezbollah.
"[But with an opposition win] Lebanon would no longer be within the U.S. orbit," she said.
Beirut is under a midnight curfew, with tanks and soldiers scattered through the city to maintain order during a tense 24 hours. Tens of thousands of Lebanese have flown home to vote, many on tickets paid for by well-funded campaigns hoping to boost turnout in their favor. As in American politics, incumbents and family dynasties are hard to unseat; roughly 100 out of 128 seats in parliament are believed to be decided before voting begins.
Lebanon's Christians are the crucial swing vote in a tight race that is expected to be determined by a handful of predominantly Christian districts to the east and north of Beirut.
The Obama administration is watching the election closely and has hinted at a change in policy toward Lebanon should it come under control of Hezbollah, which is listed as terrorist group in the United States.
"The election's outcome will naturally affect the world's stance towards the new Lebanese government and the manner in which the United States and Congress deal with Lebanon," Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Jeffrey Feltman told Arab newspapers on Saturday.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Lebanon last month, followed weeks later by Vice President Joe Biden. Biden, the highest-level U.S. official to visit Beirut in 25 years, said the United States would re-evaluate its aid to Lebanon based on the new government and its policies, a veiled reference to a victory by Hezbollah.
The visits drew ire from Hezbollah, which called American interest in Lebanon "suspicious" and a form of "meddling in Lebanese affairs."
Hezbollah suggested any loss of military assistance from the U.S. would be offset by aid and weapons from Iran.
"Iran will help any Lebanese government that requests military aid," Hezbollah's Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah told a crowd of supporters last week.
The Islamic Republic is a founding patron of Hezbollah and sees its political success as a foreign policy win; Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad said a Hezbollah-led victory would open a new Iranian front against Israel.
For all the regional significance of the race, Lebanese analysts expect little change in the domestic balance of power. For the past year, Hezbollah and its allies have had veto power over major government decisions, part of a power-sharing agreement after violent clashes that brought Lebanon to the brink of civil war.