BEIRUT – Hezbollah and its political allies won just over half the seats in Lebanon’s parliamentary elections, unofficial results showed, boosting an Iranian-backed movement fiercely opposed to Israel and underlining Tehran’s growing regional clout.
Hezbollah’s leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, called it a “political and moral victory for the resistance”, as the group refers to itself and allies.
Branded a terrorist group by the United States, the powerful group has grown in strength since joining the war in Syria in support of President Bashar al-Assad in 2012.
The gains for parties and politicians who support Hezbollah’s possession of weapons risk complicating Western policy in Lebanon, which is banking on foreign aid and loans to revive its stagnant economy and receives U.S. military support.
An Israeli minister said the outcome, which has yet to be confirmed by official results, showed the Lebanese state was indistinguishable from Hezbollah, signaling the risk of Israel hitting Lebanon’s government in a future war.
Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri lost over a third of his seats. He blamed a complex new voting law and gaps in his party’s performance.
But with 21 MPs, down from 33 in the last parliament, he emerged as the Sunni Muslim leader with the biggest bloc in the 128-seat parliament, making him the front runner to form the next government.
Initial indications showed the staunchly anti-Hezbollah Lebanese Forces, a Christian party, emerging as a big winner, nearly doubling its lawmakers to at least 15 from eight.
Hezbollah, along with allied groups and individuals, secured at least 67 seats, according to a preliminary results for nearly all the seats obtained from politicians and campaigns and reported in Lebanese media.
Seats in the Lebanese parliament are divided according to a strict sectarian quota half Muslims and half Christians. The number of Hezbollah lawmakers remained the same at around 13, but candidates supported by the group or allied to it made significant gains.
Hezbollah-backed Sunnis did well in Beirut, Tripoli and Sidon, strongholds of Hariri’s Future Movement, the preliminary results showed. The pro-Hezbollah al-Akhbar newspaper declared the election a “slap” for Hariri on its front page.
Hezbollah-backed winners include Jamil al-Sayyed, a retired Shi’a general and former Lebanese intelligence chief who is a close friend of Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad.
Sayyed was one of the most powerful men in Lebanon in the 15 years of Syrian domination that followed the 1975-90 civil war.
At least five other figures who held office then returned to parliament for the first time since Syrian forces quit Lebanon after the 2005 assassination of Rafik al-Hariri, Saad’s father.
Faisal Karami, son of the late pro-Syrian prime minister Omar Karami, won a seat for the first time.
Hezbollah’s main allies include the Amal Movement led by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and the Christian Free Patriotic Movement of President Michel Aoun, a Hezbollah ally since 2006 who has said its arsenal is needed to defend Lebanon.
While Hezbollah and its allies do not always see eye to eye, their support for its arsenal is vital to the group in Lebanon, where its weapons have been a major point of friction for years.
Hezbollah and its allies lost two of 10 seats in Baalbek-Hermel won by their foes, one Christian designated seat won by the Lebanese Forces and the other a Sunni seat won by the Future Movement. They also lost a Shi’a designated seat in the coastal town of Byblos to a Shi’a member who is an independent.
Hezbollah and its allies are not on course to win the two-thirds majority that would be required to pass big decisions such as changing the constitution.
Turnout was 49.2 percent, down from 54 percent the last time legislative elections were held in 2009.
Independent candidates running against the political establishment also won a seat in Beirut.
An anti-Hezbollah coalition led by Hariri and backed by Saudi Arabia won a majority in parliament in 2009. But that “March 14” alliance disintegrated and Riyadh has switched its attention to confronting Iran in other parts of the region, notably in Yemen and Syria.
Hariri has urged the quick formation of a government after the election so it can press ahead with reforms needed to reduce state debt levels, among the highest in the world.
He said the international community should look at the election result “in a very positive way”.
Donors want to see reforms before they release some of the $11 billion of aid and soft loans pledged in April.
Lebanon has been a big recipient of foreign aid to help it cope with hosting one million refugees from neighboring Syria.
Nasrallah called for the quick formation of a new government and said it should be done in a spirit of cooperation, putting aside differences.
Lebanon should have held a parliamentary election in 2013 but MPs instead voted to extend their own term because leaders could not agree on a new parliamentary election law.
The question of Hezbollah’s weapons has slipped down the political agenda in Lebanon in recent years. Hariri, who led years of political opposition to the group, says the weapon of Hezbollah is an issue to be resolved regionally through dialogue.
The Lebanese parliamentary election is to be followed on May 11 and 12 by an Iraqi election that is also set to underline Iran’s influence in the region, with one of three pro-Tehran Shia leaders set to become prime minister.