MAARAB, Lebanon (Reuters) -One of Lebanon’s main Christian politicians accused foe Hezbollah and its allies of working to postpone a parliamentary election set for March over fears of electoral losses, warning such a move would condemn Lebanon to a “slow death”.
Western donors that Lebanon is relying on to stem its financial implosion have said the vote must go ahead. Politicians from all sides, including Shi’ite Muslim Hezbollah, have repeatedly said it should happen, in order not to deal a further blow to the country’s standing.
But Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/what-is-lebanese-forces-party-2021-10-21 and an ally of Saudi Arabia, pointed the finger at Hezbollah and its ally President Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement for moves to delay it.
“They are near certain that they will lose their parliamentary majority,” Geagea told Reuters in an interview at his residence in the mountains overlooking the coastal town of Jounieh.
Hezbollah Member of Parliament Ibrahim Moussawi responded to Geagea’s comments by saying they were “lies” and “slander,” in a statement published on the state-run National News Agency.
Hezbollah was firmly in favor of holding elections “on their scheduled constitutional dates,” the statement said.
Aoun said this month he would not sign authorisation for the vote, approved by parliament, to be held on March 27 as the date was too early.
Asked whether a postponement would lead to more fighting after clashes last month between the Lebanese Forces and Hezbollah, Geagea said: “Not fighting, but to more slow death.”
“With the current way things are going, state institutions – and so the state – is dissolving day by day,” he said.
Lebanon has no reliable opinion polling but should the election take place, Geagea’s party is widely expected to make gains, with the Free Patriotic Movement expected to lose seats, potentially robbing Hezbollah of its majority.
Without an election to shake up parliament “you will see more of the same,” Geagea said. The United Nations says the economic meltdown has left nearly 80% of people in poverty.
Lebanon’s government, formed from most major political parties in September following a 13-month period of political paralysis, has not convened in nearly 50 days amid a push by Hezbollah and its allies to remove the judge investigating the deadly August 2020 Beirut port blast.
Adding to the economic peril, Lebanon is facing a wave of Gulf Arab anger https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/lebanon-is-dragged-back-into-eye-iranian-saudi-storm-2021-11-01 after a prominent broadcaster-turned-minister levelled blunt criticism at Saudi Arabia, in a row that has further strained Beirut’s ties with once generous benefactors.
Geagea, who maintained close contact to the Saudi ambassador in Beirut, said Hezbollah’s increasing influence was the main problem behind the rift which is harmful to Lebanon’s economy.
“We see Saudi and the Gulf as economic lungs for Lebanon,” he said.
Geagea’s Lebanese Forces is the second-largest Christian party in parliament. It has stayed out of the Cabinet since a popular uprising against the sectarian elite in 2019.
But the group was thrust back into the headlines when tensions over the probe erupted into the worst street violence in more than a decade last month, reviving memories of the country’s 1975-90 civil war.
Seven people, all followers of Hezbollah and its ally Amal, were killed.
Hezbollah accused the Lebanese Forces of ambushing its supporters at the protest. Geagea confirmed supporters of his party, along with others, were involved in the clashes, but denied the move was premeditated and blamed Hezbollah for entering Beirut’s mostly Christian Ain al-Remmaneh neighbourhood, a strong support base for the Lebanese Forces.
During Lebanon’s civil war, the Lebanese Forces, under Geagea, was a right-wing militia that controlled swaths of territory including eastern Beirut.
Following October’s clashes, Hezbollah’s leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, accused the party of seeking to start a sectarian conflict and warned Hezbollah had 100,000 fighters at his disposal.
Geagea denied Nasrallah’s allegation that the Lebanese Forces had 15,000 fighters, saying the party had 35,000 members of whom only some had personal arms and perhaps more than 10,000 – “the whole old generation” – had military training.
Geagea said the Lebanese Forces did not seek a physical confrontation with Hezbollah and were not concerned about the breakout of sectarian violence due to the role of the Lebanese Army in maintaining civil peace.
However, he said he had limited his movement and was not leaving his mountain residence in Maarab due to security threats, without giving further details.
(Reporting by Timour Azhari, Maha El Dahan and Omar FahmyEditing by Alison Williams and Matthew Lewis)