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Lebanese head to the polls

Heads, Hezbollah wins. Tails, the other guys lose.

People go about their business amid various campaign posters ahead of Lebanon's June 7 parliamentary election, in Tripoli June 6, 2009. (Steve Crisp/Reuters)

BEIRUT — Hezbollah already won what they called a “Divine Victory” in the war with Israel in 2006; by comparison their success at the polls in the 2009 elections seems like a sideshow — and a foregone conclusion.

The Lebanese vote on Sunday in some of the most loudly contested elections in the Arab world. Problem is, the governing alliance already lost power a long time ago in everything but name. The government is running scared, while Hezbollah and its allies have steadily expanded their share of real power for the last three years. Almost no conceivable outcome of this election will change that inexorable reality, which on the surface at least looks sad for Lebanon’s liberals and exciting for the group of parties that brands itself “the Axis of Resistance.”

The governing coalition looks like a moderate and tolerant bunch, secular, pluralistic, willing to live and let live, and to do business with the United States. They have staked this election as a black-and-white referendum on the future: return the government to power and propel Lebanon out of the grip of extremism — or vote for Hezbollah, and drive the little country that could into the embrace of Iran’s ayatollahs.

“Hassan Nasrallah wants to make this an Islamic state! They consider us Christians visitors in our own country! They will carry this country into an abyss!” one of the pro-Western candidates screamed at a rally this week. Nayla Tueni is an attractive young scion of an intellectual dissident dynasty, but her nearly hysterical pitch to the voters in the Christian part of Beirut amounted to bald fear-mongering: Vote for us, or else this place will look like Tehran.

Hezbollah might be a lot of things, but they’re not anti-Christian; their biggest political ally is former general Michel Aoun’s Christian party, and in the current government they’ve given his movement more cabinet positions than they kept for themselves.

Just a few seats in the parliament are up for grabs, and by most estimates the balance of power will shift only by a few seats. A “decisive” victory for Hezbollah’s coalition means they will win a slim majority in parliament; if the governing parties win, the best they’ll be able to do is maintain a status quo in which they share power with Hezbollah’s coalition and must avoid advancing any bold or controversial policies.

The governing majority (a loose alliance that calls itself March 14) has allied itself with Washington and Riyadh, and has promised to resist Syrian domination. But it has done little to improve Lebanon’s moribund economy and calcified political system. Most of its major leaders are warlords with epic reputations for graft and corruption. They have little left to galvanize their followers but fear — in particular, fear that Lebanon’s dwindling Christian population will wither to nearly nothing.