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Lebanese Christians - kingmakers in vote

Rally in Christian neighbourhood of Achrafiyeh (Tweini in the background)
Naila Tweini, 26, is the youngest of the 12 female candidates

By Natalia Antelava
BBC News, Beirut

There is a new joke in Beirut - Lebanon's heated election campaign, it goes, has given birth to two new religious sects… Shia and Sunni Christians.

In Lebanon, people have always voted along sectarian lines. As the country prepares for a crucial parliamentary vote, in many districts, the result is already a foregone conclusion.

The Shias are expected to vote for the opposition, backed by Iran and Syria and led by the Shia militant group Hezbollah. The Sunnis will back the pro-Western, Sunni-led alliance.

But Christians are the kingmakers of the vote.

Lebanon's Christian neighbourhoods are divided between the two main groups - it is this Christian choice that will sway the vote.

Western focus

For Naila Tweini, the 26-year-old daughter of famous journalist and politician, Gibran Tweini, the choice is clear.

Syria and Iran have no future in Lebanon, our future is with the West
Supporter of Neila Tweini

In 2005, Gibran Tweini became one of the first victims in a series of assassinations targeting anti-Syrian politicians.

Tens of thousands attended the funeral, during which Neila Tweini gave an emotional address. In a shaking, grief-stricken voice, she vowed to keep her father's memory alive by taking up his cause.

Four years on, a more mature, glamorous and determined Neila Tweini looks down from huge billboards across Achrafiyeh, one of the Christian neighbourhoods of Beirut.

She is running for her father's old seat in parliament.

Throughout her rigorous campaign, she has rallied supporters to vote with the pro-Western alliance, to make sure that Syria does not dominate Lebanon again.

"Syria and Iran have no future in Lebanon, our future is with the West," one of her supporters shouted over loud music at a pre-election rally.

Israel will attack again, and we will need Hezbollah
Joanna, Supporter of Hezbollah

Many Christians fear that victory of the Hezbollah-led bloc will inevitably bring another war with Israel, and could ultimately even turn Lebanon into an Islamic state.

"I respect Hezbollah for its resistance to Israel, but if they are a political party, why do they have weapons? They kidnap tourists, they carry out attacks - they can be dangerous," says businessman Robert Farah.

Hezbollah promise

But for every Christian who opposes Hezbollah, there seems to be one who supports the alliance that it leads.

Election poster of Michel Aoun
Christian leader Aoun has allied himself with Hezbollah

Many of them say they see Hezbollah as the only force capable of defending them from Israel.

"The Lebanese army has never done anything to protect us," said Joanna, a student in Beirut. "Israel will attack again, and we will need Hezbollah."

The United States and Britain consider Hezbollah a terrorist organisation, but while fighting Israel is the group's main aim, its alliance with a powerful Christian group is one of many signs that Hezbollah has evolved from a mere militant group into a sophisticated political organisation with a strong power base and cunning strategy.

"Since the 1990s, Hezbollah has been playing a very intelligent game. They made a clear decision and put aside the idea of creating an Islamic state, instead focusing on national resistance. Their alliance with Christian leaders is part of this strategy," says Karim Makdisi, a political analyst at the American University of Beirut.

Christian alliance

Hezbollah's main electoral partner is the Free Patriotic Movement, led by the retired Christian general, Michel Aoun.

Mr Aoun's critics see the general as a traitor and an opportunist who in 2006 allied himself with Hezbollah, abandoning his anti-Syrian stance.

LEBANON ELECTIONS KEY FACTS
128-seat parliament. Seats divided along sectarian and communal lines - 64 for Muslims and 64 for Christians
Main factions: 14 March Coalition: Future movement, Progressive Socialist Party, Christian Lebanese Forces, Christian Phalangist party. 8 March Coalition: Hezbollah, Amal movement headed by the current parliamentary speaker, Nabih Birri. Free Patriotic Movement of Gen Michel Aoun

But his supporters say he is a reformer, and they approve of his alliance with Hezbollah.

"The opposition has never been in power, and when I listen to their speeches they focus on internal security, economics, political reform. But the government block is only busy with retaliatory attacks on opposition," says Joe, a graduate student in Beirut.

Decades ago, Christians dominated politics in Lebanon. But over the years many left, fleeing wars and instability. Those who stayed failed to unite.

Politically their community is now split between the Shias and the Sunnis, but in this crucial election Christians are the ones who will determine the outcome.



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