The Iran-backed Hezbollah group and its allies scored significant gains in Sunday's parliamentary elections in Lebanon while the Saudi-backed Prime Minister Saad Hariri's Future Movement sustained losses, according to preliminary and unofficial results published in Lebanese media on Monday.
Hariri said his Future Movement had won 21 seats in the parliamentary election, down from the 33 he won the last time Lebanon elected a parliament in 2009.
Despite the losses, the result positions Hariri as the frontrunner to form the next government as the Sunni Muslim leader with the biggest bloc in parliament. Lebanon's prime minister has to be a Sunni under its power-sharing system.
But the results have indicated that Sunni voters are losing faith in Hariri's party amid a stagnant economy and general exasperation over the civil war in neighbouring Syria, which has brought one million refugees to Lebanon.
The next government, like the outgoing one, will likely be a unity government that incorporates Hariri's opponents from the Shia Hezbollah group.
The powerful Shia group is a key political player in Lebanon where it has allied with the Christian party of President Michel Aoun and has participated in Hariri's government since December 2016.
Astute pre-electoral tactics have secured Hezbollah enough allies to withstand political challenges on strategic issues.
Hezbollah and its allies appear set to take at least 47 seats in the 128-seat parliament, enabling them to veto any laws the group opposes.
Hezbollah, which was created in the 1980s to fight against Israel and currently battles in Syria alongside regime forces, is listed as a terror organisation by the United States, while the European Union lists Hezbollah's military wing as a terrorist, differentiating between its military activities and political. But Hezbollah does not formally divide itself into armed and political wings.
Hezbollah has sent thousands of its fighters to Syria to shore up regime leader Bashar al Assad's forces. That, and its intervention in Iraq and Yemen, has led several oil-rich Gulf states to also name it as a terrorist group.
The election, the first to be held in nine years, was marked by a lower turnout than before, reflecting voter frustration over endemic corruption and a stagnant economy.
Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk put national turnout at 49 percent, compared to 54 percent in 2009.
In Beirut precincts, the turnout was between 32 percent and 42 percent.
The drop came despite a reformulated electoral law designed to encourage voting through proportional representation.
But many, including Machnouk, blamed the new, complex law which redrew constituency districts for the tepid turnout, particularly in Beirut as the new pre-printed ballots used on Sunday appeared to confuse some voters.
Some voters also said that the sometimes absurd web of local alliances that saw some parties work together in one district and compete in others had put them off.
The preliminary results show at least one candidate from a civil society list – a woman journalist – won a seat in parliament.
The main race was between a Western and Saudi-backed coalition headed by Hariri and the Iran-backed Hezbollah, part of a region-wide power struggle that is tearing apart the Middle East.
The elections were the first since war broke out in neighbouring Syria in 2011, sending over one million refugees to Lebanon, a small country with a population estimated at around 4.5 million.
The war has divided Lebanon, pitting parties supporting Hezbollah's intervention in Syria to aid Bashar al Assad's forces against Saudi-aligned parties opposed to it.
According to the unofficial results, several hardcore pro-Assad politicians allied with Hezbollah also won seats in the new parliament.