Lebanon's Free Patriotic Movement has aligned itself with the pro-Syrian March 8 faction [AFP]

This picturesque seaside and mountainous country of around four million inhabitants has long been referred to as the place where other countries come to fight their wars.

And with election campaigning well under way before the June 7 poll, regional powers are, once again, flexing their muscles in Lebanon.

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However, so far at least, the guns have remained silent and there are no tanks rolling through the streets this time round.

This is a war of words and dollars. Lebanon is once again caught in the middle with Saudi Arabia on one side and Iran and Syria on the other.

Neighbouring countries are doing everything they can to influence the vote – widely seen as the most free and competitive election held in decades.

Both of the key factions are claiming they have the edge but the race is still too close to call.

The election pits the current, western-backed government widely known as the March 14 coalition against the Hezbollah-dominated opposition alliance known as the March 8 coalition.

The March 14 alliance is comprised of Sunni Muslims and Christians and is led by Saad al-Hariri, the billionaire son of the late prime minister, Rafik al-Hariri, whose 2005 assassination sparked the Cedar Revolution.

March 14 is backed by Saudi Arabia and several western governments, including the US. It is no secret that the Saudis are spending big bucks to support them.

"We are putting a lot into this," said one adviser to the Saudi government in a report published recently in the New York Times, before calculating that the Saudi contribution was likely to add up to hundreds of millions of dollars.

"We're supporting candidates running against Hezbollah, and we're going to make Iran feel the pressure," the adviser added.

US concerns

The US has not made any financial contributions, according to political analysts, but they have not exactly stood on the sidelines either.

In late April, Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, made a surprise visit to Beirut and met with Michel Suleiman, the Lebanese president in a move seen as a show of support for the current government.

"We want to see a strong, independent, free and sovereign Lebanon," Clinton said, noting that Barack Obama, the US president, had sent Mr Suleiman a letter expressing those sentiments.

"This election will be, obviously, an important milestone," she continued.

"We want to see a strong, independent, free and sovereign Lebanon... this election will be an important milestone"

Hilary Clinton, US Secretary of State

In addition, Joe Biden, the US vice-president, made an unexpected visit to Beirut two weeks before the June 7 vote meeting both government and opposition leaders.

It was the first visit to Lebanon by a sitting US vice-president since 1983.

While Biden stressed he was not in the country to support any one candidate or political party, he did make it clear that future US financial aid would be tied to the policies of the next Lebanese government.

Some observers, especially the opposition parties, took this to mean that if March 14 does not win the poll, US aid to Lebanon will be severely limited or cut altogether.

The Hezbollah-led opposition responded to Biden's visit by dismissing it as another example of the US meddling in Lebanon's affairs and a gross violation of the country's sovereignty.

In the months leading up to the election, many experts predicted that Hezbollah – which is largely seen by western countries as a proxy for Iranian and Syrian influence in Lebanon – would do well and pick up seats in Parliament.

The US is deeply concerned about the outcome of the Lebanese election because, as Biden put it, the Obama administration needs a stable Lebanon in order to broker a lasting Middle East peace deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Hezbollah

The American government has long labelled Hezbollah a terrorist organization, ever since fighters linked to the group masterminded a suicide attack at the marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 and killed 241 US servicemen.

Some members of Hezbollah members were also responsible for the hijackings of US airliners and the bombing of the US embassy in Beirut.

America has refused to engage with Hezbollah despite the group's growing popularity in recent years, but the Obama administration recently reached out to Hezbollah's patrons, Iran and Syria, to try and forge diplomatic ties.

The margin of victory or defeat is expected to be so close that each faction is doing everything it can to get ahead. Behind the scenes horse trading for support is going on at a feverish pace.

Hezbollah has been tipped to gain seats in the June 7 parliamentary election [AFP]

According to the Lebanese Transparency Association (LTA), a non-partisan group that monitors money in politics, some people are selling their votes outright to the highest bidder.

This is mostly happening in poor, rural villages where people are so skeptical of the political process that they do not believe their vote matters.

Then there is the issue of the expatriot vote – Lebanon is one of the few countries in the world where expatriots actually have to be physically present to cast their ballot.

Expatriots returning to Lebanon to vote is nothing new, but this year the expatriot vote is getting special attention because if the gap between the two factions is as narrow as predicted – the expatriot vote could actually decide the result.

The LTA says both campaigning teams are offering to pay for expatriots to fly to Lebanon in order to vote. While not illegal under current law, Gaelle Kibranian, the LTA programmes director, alleges it could be seen as a form of corruption.

"It is a way of buying votes, so it is of concern and this is why we want to push for reform in the coming years," she says.

While the LTA hopes to change the law to either allow expatriots to vote in absentia or make offering flights to vote illegal before the next general election, this poll could well be decided by people no longer resident in Lebanon.

Source: Al Jazeera