With quiet campaigning and moderate talk, Hezbollah is building its strength for Lebanon's June 7 parliament elections — and the militant Shiite Muslim group and its allies stand a good chance of winning.
That could mean a stunning shake-up for one of the Middle East's most volatile countries, replacing a pro-U.S. government with a coalition dominated from behind the scenes by Hezbollah, the political movement and guerrilla group widely seen as the proxy of Iran and Syria in Lebanon.
The U.S. and Israel consider Hezbollah a terrorist organization, and their biggest fear is that a win by the group and its allies would increase the sway of Iran and Syria. The U.S. ambassador in Beirut has already expressed concern, and Hezbollah's opponents warn the consequence may be the West isolating Lebanon and Washington reducing its millions in aid.
But Hezbollah, whose name means "Party of God," has taken the strategy of a low-key election campaign with a moderate message, aiming to show that a victory by its coalition should not scare anyone.
'Open a new page'
Hezbollah's leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, has even said that if the coalition wins, it would invite its opponents to join in a national unity government to ensure stability. His deputy, Sheik Naim Kassem, says the West will have to accept the election results.
Kassem said foreign diplomats are already approaching Hezbollah, "some wanting to open a new page." Britain has said it is willing to talk to Hezbollah's political wing and a Hezbollah member of the current parliament recently traveled to London.
The moderate tone is in part because Hezbollah does not want to suffer the same fate as its Palestinian militant ally Hamas, which won legislative elections in 2006 but was boycotted by the West and crippled by an Israeli-led closure of the Gaza Strip.
"There are pitfalls for winning or losing," said Hezbollah expert Amal Saad-Ghorayeb. "They (Hezbollah) see the dangers of winning."
Nevertheless, a Hezbollah win would almost certainly mean changes that would dismay the West and Israel. It would mean less pressure from Lebanon's government to rein in Hezbollah's arsenal of rockets pointed at the Jewish state, which it employed in its 2006 war with Israel, and more backing for efforts to change Lebanon's electoral system to solidify Shiite power further.
Israel's worry is "whether Iran and Syria will succeed in adding Lebanon to their bloc," said Israeli political analyst Barry Rubin. "It would be a huge defeat for the West."
So far, Hezbollah has campaigned quietly, with none of its trademark fiery anti-Israel rallies. Its 11 candidates have been holding town hall meetings in Shiite villages, focusing on promises to root out corruption and improve government performance, and stressing government by consensus.
By contrast, leaders from the U.S.-backed majority have held three splashy rallies since February before several thousand people in a Beirut hall, with balloons, confetti and speakers projected on a giant screen.
Nasrallah says Hezbollah knows that trying to dominate Lebanon's politics would destabilize the country, which in the past four years nearly tumbled into a repeat of the 1975-90 civil war as the pro-Syrian and pro-U.S. camps struggled for the upper hand.
"In such a sectarian system, it is in the interest of Lebanon and its stability that there is understanding and partnership among Lebanese in running their country's affairs," he said in a recent televised speech.
Hezbollah's 10 candidates
Under Lebanon's complex political system, no group can rule alone. The 128-member legislature must be half Christian and half-Muslim, with the Christians divided among Orthodox and Catholic parties and Muslims among Shiite, Sunni, Druse and Alawite sects. Moreover, in any government, the prime minister must be a Sunni, so Hezbollah would need allies from that sect.
Lebanon's 4 million population is roughly divided in thirds between Christians, Sunnis and Shiites, with smaller sects mixed in. The exact numbers are unknown because a census would be too politically risky — the last one was held in 1932.
The pro-U.S. bloc — largely Sunnis with Christian allies — holds 70 seats in the 128-member parliament, so a handful of races could tip the balance.
Hezbollah is running 10 candidates — one less than it has in the current parliament after withdrawing from one constituency to give a seat to an allied party. All the Hezbollah candidates will likely win easily given the movement's overwhelming support among Shiites.
Its coalition of pro-Syrian, Shiite and several Christian parties now has 58 seats in parliament. About 30 seats — from both camps — are reported to be a toss-ups. But some political analysts believe Hezbollah's coalition has a strong chance of winning a majority because smaller electoral districts created since the 2005 election favor its candidates. There are no reliable independent polls in Lebanon.
The leader of the pro-U.S. bloc, Sunni billionaire Saad Hariri, has said a Hezbollah win would "put Lebanon into very difficult times," threatening its economic growth.
In an interview with Beirut's Naharnet news Web site, U.S. Ambassador Michele Sison warned that American relations with Lebanon — and future U.S. aid — "will be evaluated in the context of the new government's policies and statements." Since 2006, the United States has committed over a billion dollars to Lebanon, including $410 million to the country's security forces.
A victory by the pro-Syrian coalition would likely see Hezbollah pushing to fulfill its campaign promise to eliminate the sectarian distribution of parliament seats, which would boost the power of the growing Shiite population. Hezbollah would also see a win as a mandate for its opposition to U.S. Middle East policies and its strong anti-Israeli line.