BEIRUT (AFP) – South Lebanon went to the polls on Sunday with Hezbollah-backed candidates running uncontested in mainly Shiite areas, as the militant group’s archfoe Israel held a defence drill across the border.
Areas under Hezbollah control settled the electoral race by consensus, with several candidates withdrawing to make way for others backed by Hezbollah and its fellow Shiite ally Amal.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah on Friday asked voters to cast ballots in favour of candidates backed by his group as they formed part of “a strategic alliance that protects the (anti-Israeli) resistance and boosts its immunity.”
Out of a total of 257 municipalities, 49 councils were not being contested and other candidates were still pulling out of the race on Sunday in the wake of Nasrallah’s statement.
The election came as Israel launched a five-day nationwide defence drill codenamed “Turning Point 4” that the military said aims to prepare the Israeli public for emergencies but is not linked to any specific threat.
However, Hezbollah, which fought a devastating 2006 war with Israel, mobilised thousands of fighters on Sunday, while Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri protested that the exercises “run counter to peace efforts.”
In Hariri’s hometown of Sidon, voters headed to the polls amid high tension and tight security as his supporters briefly clashed with followers of rival local leader Ossama Saad at a polling station before being separated by police.
The Lebanese army on Saturday dismantled a bomb found near the home of Mohammed al-Saudi, a Hariri-backed candidate for the post of mayor in the Sunni Muslim port city.
About 355,000 people are registered to vote in southern Lebanon, but there was no official estimate on anticipated turnout as many of those on the electoral list live abroad.
Lebanon’s phased local polls for a total registered electorate of 3.33 million are being held on every Sunday in May, except for May 16. The final round is scheduled for next week in the north of the country.
The municipal election is Lebanon’s first since 2004.