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.
Shrinking Christians, Faith-Based Politics
Lebanon is home to 18 religious sects, each with their own political factions. As part of the truce that ended Lebanon's Civil War, the 128 seats in parliament are split between Christians and Muslims. The even division is outdated; a mass of Christian have left Lebanon over the years, leaving a community that represents an estimated 35 percent of the population. It's now assumed that Christians, Sunnis and Shiites each make up roughly a third of the country, with top government positions structured so that no one group can take control.
Ahead of this weekend's race, Christian parties split their support between the two rival camps -- some joining forces with the Sunni-led government, others with an opposition led by Shiite Hezbollah. Sunday's outcome depends on which Christians parties get the most votes in key electoral districts.
The head of Lebanon's largest Christian bloc, Michel Aoun, formed an alliance with Hezbollah three years ago that widened base for Sunday's showdown. Since then, other sects have joined the opposition, from Armenian Christians to factions within the Sunni and Druze communities.
Aoun himself is running on the Hezbollah coalition's platform of "change and reform," bolstered by strong personal appeal. A revered Civil War general known for fighting Syrian presence in Lebanon, his partnership with Syrian-backed Hezbollah was a political about-face. Some accuse him of selling out to gain power; others credit him for protecting Christians through a strategic alliance with Lebanon's most powerful force.
On the other side, allied with the March 14 camp, a collection of Christian parties are worried about the rise of Hezbollah and its Syrian partners. On Saturday, the Christian community's highest religious voice, Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir, took a rare partisan stance, reportedly warning that the "Lebanese entity and its Arab identity" were at stake, and that voters should resist attempts to "change the face of Lebanon."
Islamic Republic in Lebanon?
Shiite Hezbollah, founded with the goal of a militarized Islamic state in Lebanon, says that is no longer their aim; they now emphasize governing by consensus, with their broad base of sectarian allies.
Hezbollah has offered its rivals veto power in its government, in the event its coalition wins on Sunday. Oussama Safa, head of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, says the offer is a calculated act of diplomacy.
"Otherwise Hezbollah will be seen as capturing the state, which it wants to avoid at all costs," he said.
Even among its partners, however, one issue is not up for discussion: Hezbollah's weapons and military assets. With a separate security infrastructure, Hezbollah has effectively created a "state within a state" -- only theirs is more efficient and far bolder, constantly challenging Israel and verbally committed to fighting another war with Lebanon's neighbor to the south.
The recent capture of an alleged ring of Israeli spies, operating in Lebanon with high-level security access, has been a fresh talking point in Hezbollah's security arguments.
That defiance of Israel is a mainstay of Hezbollah's Iranian ties.
"Through Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, Iran has arrived at the shores of the Mediterranean," said Soueid, the candidate with the ruling March 14 movement. Hezbollah's opponents also fear an opposition win could destabilize Lebanon's economy, discouraging investment from traditional backers in the Gulf and the West.
Hezbollah's allies see Soueid's concerns as fear-mongering, an effort to scare swing voters out of backing its allies.
"The country will stay as is, and nothing will change [if the opposition wins]. Nothing will change at all in terms of Lebanon's external relations," said Alain Aoun, a Christian candidate with the opposition and nephew of party leader Michel Aoun.
While the two sides paint different visions of what Lebanon could be after today's vote, a third perspective says that even if its coalition gains power, Hezbollah won't want to take center stage.
"They control the system better in a position where they are sort of behind the curtain," said Michael Young, a leading analyst in Beirut. "If they are in front of the curtain, they take the blame for the problems."
With or without a Hezbollah win, the security equation between Israel and Lebanon could change with progressive diplomacy between the U.S. and Iran.
"If the U.S. is talking to Iran, then Hezbollah is on the table," said Safa, the policy analyst. "[America] is not so naïve to think they can embark on a Middle East peace process without dealing with non-state actors such as Hamas and Hezbollah. They will have to deal with them indirectly."
With few independent polls in Lebanon, it is notoriously difficult to tell who will come out ahead. The Eurasia Group, a U.S.-based political consultancy, predicts a narrow win for March 14, the ruling pro-Western camp.
The uncertainty and potential instability of this election are a condition of Lebanon's fractured politics. They're part of a norm that Lebanese voters have learned to live with, says Marny Issa, 35, who sells political paraphernalia at his gift shop north of Beirut.
"If these issues were to be resolved and all of us were united, Lebanon would no longer be Lebanon."