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Lebanon's political season kicks off

A polarized electorate will determine Lebanon’s future in a volatile region.

Lebanon's Parliament majority leader Saad al-Hariri and leader of the Future Movement addresses supporters during a ceremony launching its political program in Beirut April 5, 2009. The Future Movement is running in the upcoming general elections, which will be held on June 7, 2009. (Hussam Shbaro/Reuters)

BEIRUT — Banners and billboards have begun to spring up around Lebanon bearing avatars of smiling or scolding politicians jockeying for parliamentary seats in the upcoming June 7 parliamentary elections.

At election rallies, political leaders, called “Zaeem” in Arabic, smile and wave and make pronouncements, but in the end, there’s really only one issue.

“We uphold our position saying that no Lebanese or non-Lebanese arms should rise above the arms of the state and its security and military institutions,” said Saad al-Hariri, the current parliamentary majority leader, at his Future Movement’s political rally in early April.

Hariri was talking about Hezbollah, and the group’s insistence that it needs weapons to defend Lebanon against Israel. Hariri’s position is that Hezbollah’s weapons are dangerous to the country, and the Lebanese Army should be the only armed force in Lebanon.

A few days earlier, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah held a similar rally, telling his supporters to get out the vote in order to take the majority of parliamentary seats from Hariri’s ruling coalition.

“Our goal in the upcoming parliamentary elections is to achieve the victory of the opposition,” Nasrallah declared in a live video feed to his supporters. “We will be paving the way for a certain political life. Either we bring new political life, or extend the old life,” he said.

Hariri’s block holds power by a slim majority. With around 700 candidates running for Lebanon’s 128 Parliamentary seats, the stakes are high.

The elections will poll a polarized electorate split by ideology, religion and political affiliation. The winning coalition will deeply influence Lebanon’s orientation on a variety of issues for the next four years.

The issues include Hezbollah’s weapons and the Lebanese government’s support for the group’s militant stance against Israel, and the nature of Lebanese relations with the U.S. and Europe on the one hand, and Iran and Syria on the other.

There are few independent candidates with any chance of winning in the election. Nearly all of them are members of one of two camps.

One camp is the Syrian and Iranian affiliated March 8 coalition, led by the Shiite group Hezbollah and former General Michele Aoun, a Christian. March 8 currently holds the minority of seats in the parliament, making it the opposition. It is composed of most of Lebanon’s Shiite population, and roughly half of the country’s Christians.

“March 8 wants a society and state of resistance, a steadfast bastion against western imperialist, American and Zionist designs to have a chokehold on the region,” said Oussama Safa, director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies.