Lebanon's Hezbollah says it expects parliamentary election on time

Lebanon's Hezbollah deputy leader Sheikh Naim Qassem is pictured during an interview with Reuters at his office in Beirut's suburbs, Lebanon August 3, 2016. REUTERS/Aziz Taher/File Photo

BEIRUT, Jan 30 (Reuters) - Lebanon's Iran-backed Hezbollah group said on Sunday it saw no reason to delay May's parliamentary elections, days after politics was turned on its head by Saad al-Hariri's withdrawal from public life.

Hariri, Lebanon's leading Sunni Muslim politician and three times a former prime minister, declared on Monday he wouldboycott the vote, adding to the uncertainties facing a country grappling with a devastating financial crisis.

"All indications are that the parliamentary elections will take place on time," Sheikh Naim Qassem, deputy leader of the heavily armed Hezbollah,according to a copy of his speech seen by Reuters.

Maronite Christian patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rai, a Hezbollah critic, said on Sunday Hariri's move must not be used as an excuse to call for a delay. read more

Hezbollah's adversaries hope to overturn the majority won by the group and allies including President Michel Aoun's Christian Free Patriotic Movement in 2018.

Since then, the financial crisis has plunged the bulk of Lebanese into poverty. The meltdown came to a head in late 2019, when economic grievances ignited protests against the ruling elite over decades of corruption and mismanagement.

Despite this, Hezbollah does not expect the election to yield a result much different to 2018, Qassem said, dismissing what he described as expectations of parliament being turned "upside down".

Hezbollah opinion polls across Lebanon showed "the results of the election will be close to the make-up of the current parliament, with slight changes that do not affect the general make-up", he said.

"Therefore we say to those who have high hopes: 'put your feet on the ground'," said Qassem, whose group is designated as a terrorist organisation by countries including the United States.

While none of Lebanon's main parties have called for an election delay - Aoun said on Saturday he saw no reason for one - many observers believe this may well suit a number of influential players if they feel they stand to lose out.

Western states want the vote to go ahead on time.

One party hoping to gain is the Christian Lebanese Forces, a Saudi-aligned group fiercely critical of Hezbollah and Aoun.

Hariri leaves behind him a fractured Sunni community where analysts believe Sunni allies of Hezbollah may be able to win more seats.

But Hezbollah adversaries also hope to gain.

Hariri's brother, Bahaa, announced on Friday he is entering politics. A fierce critic of Hezbollah, he plans to support candidates but will not be running himself.

Reporting by Tom Perry and Suleiman al-Khalidi; editing by David Evans

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