BEIRUT: Lebanese queued up to vote on Sunday in a hotly-contested election that could see an alliance led by the Shia group Hezbollah defeat the ruling Western-backed coalition.
Authorities appeared overwhelmed by the crowds of people who began lining up even before polling stations opened, with many Lebanese complaining of long waits of up three hours to cast their ballots.
Such voter turnout is unheard of in the history of Lebanese elections, Interior Minister Ziad Baroud said.
About 50,000 police and soldiers were on patrol nationwide to prevent any violence between rival camps during the closely-fought election – whose outcome is being keenly watched by Lebanon s neighbors and Western powers.
Our destiny in Lebanon is to be either pro-West or pro-Iran and that is why this election is very important, said Beirut resident Simone Kosremelli after casting her ballot.
At stake is whether multi-confessional Lebanon, frequently used as a pawn in regional powerplays, keeps on a pro-Western course or takes a tilt towards Iran, the regional Shia powerhouse which backs Hezbollah (the Party of God.)
Analysts predict a tight race for the 128-seat parliament, with the winner likely to clinch victory by just a few seats and probably have to form a coalition government with its rivals.
A handful of key battleground constituencies are likely to be crucial, with the Christian vote, which is divided between the two camps, set to tip the scales.
Israel, which fought a devastating war with Hezbollah in 2006, warned that victory for the Shia alliance would pose a danger to the entire region by creating another Iranian entity.
Lebanon will become a terror state, said Interior Minister Eli Yishai.
The United States, which backs the current Sunni-led coalition and blacklists Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, has warned that continued military aid would hinge on the shape of the new government.
Lebanon s former power broker Syria said the election was a chance for voters to throw their weight behind the anti-Israeli resistance represented by Hezbollah – whose militia retains a massive arsenal of weapons.
Former US president Jimmy Carter, who is heading a team of international observers, said he hoped Lebanon s political parties and their foreign backers would accept the outcome.
We don t have any worries over the conduct of the elections, Carter said. We have concerns over the acceptance of the results by all the major parties.
While no major incidents were reported, officials said three people were arrested for trying to vote with fake identification.
President Michel Sleiman called on all parties to tone down their rhetoric after a polarizing campaign marked by mudslinging even between allies and dire warnings of doom.
Democracy is a blessing we must preserve, a blessing that distinguishes Lebanon in the Middle East, he said.
About 3.2 million Lebanese are eligible to vote. Polling closes at 7 pm (1600 GMT), with official results expected late Sunday or on Monday.
Under Lebanon s complex power-sharing system, the 128 seats are divided equally between majority Muslims and minority Christians, who make up about a third of the four million population.
The current majority swept to power in 2005 on a wave of popular anger following the assassination of former billionaire prime minister Rafiq Hariri in a massive Beirut car bombing.
The murder was widely blamed on Syria, which denied any involvement, and the ensuing public outcry led to Damascus withdrawing its troops after 29 years.
It also marked the beginning of a turbulent period which saw Hezbollah thrust to the political forefront through the 2006 war with Israel in which 1,200 people died in Lebanon.
Political unrest last year also saw a six-month vacuum in the presidency and sectarian clashes that brought the country to the brink of a new civil war.
The International Crisis Group said in a report the vote was likely to revive rather than resolve the underlying conflicts.
The challenge will be to bring winners and loses together rather than exacerbate their differences and threaten to trigger another cycle of violence confrontation.