Joumana Haddad, a novelist and candidate running on an independent list, waves to her supporters during a protest against what they say was fraud to deny her election victory, outside the Interior Ministry, in Beirut on May 7, 2018. (Hussein Malla/AP)

Lebanon’s Hezbollah paramilitary movement emerged Monday as the main victor in the country’s first election in almost a decade, securing veto power in the Lebanese parliament as the prime minister’s fortunes fell.

Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk said Iran-backed Hezbollah and its parliamentary allies won more than a third of the 128 seats, which would leave them as a dominant force in the Lebanese legislature.

The party of Sunni Prime Minister Saad Hariri, meanwhile, lost at least five seats in Beirut,
once considered a stronghold, although he was expected to retain his position. Machnouk said a final breakdown of the nationwide results will be released Tuesday.

The vote — the first of its kind in nine years — had been hotly anticipated. Television stations aired extensive coverage, and billboards of the candidates’ faces loomed high above the streets of Beirut. 

Lebanon has long been beset by corruption and political sclerosis, and the election results were widely expected. But experts said they built on the regional trends that have buffeted the tiny country as next-door Syria is consumed by war. 

“Everyone expected that the outcome in Syria would set the trajectory of politics in Lebanon, and that is essentially what has been happening since 2016,” said Emile Hokayem, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri speaks during a news conference in Beirut on May 7, 2018. (Bilal Hussein/AP)

Seven years into the conflict, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has essentially secured victory with the support of Iran and Russia, while his major opponents in the Arab states of the Persian Gulf have ended their calls for regime change. 

A key political player in Lebanon, Hezbollah also has been one of the Assad government’s major allies, sending thousands of fighters to battle Syrian rebels and the Islamic State. In a televised address Monday, the movement’s leader, Hasan Nasrallah, hailed its electoral success as a “political and moral victory.”

Sunday’s vote was governed by a complex new electoral law intended to bring in new political players while preserving Lebanon’s sect-based political system. 

For many voters, it proved confusing. Inside a polling booth in the Hezbollah-dominated Beirut suburb of Dahiyeh, a steady stream of people approached volunteers Sunday to ask how they were meant to cast their ballots. Craning his neck to read a party list, an elderly man insisted that he wanted to vote for just one candidate, Ali Ammar.

“No, no. You have to vote for the candidate and the list. It’s very simple,” replied one volunteer. His questioner did not look convinced. 

Election monitors from the Washington-based National Democratic Institute said that they ­recorded inconsistencies but that polling officials and security forces had done their jobs with “admirable professionalism, compassion and pride.”

Official figures put turnout at around 50 percent, down from previous elections, and many who had stayed away cited disillusionment at the prospects for change. 

The election marked the first serious foray by civil society groups into the electoral sphere, with independent candidates running as part of a campaign known as Kulna Watani, or We Are All the Nation. Ultimately, the movement won only one seat, electing well-known television personality Paula Yacoubian.

Victory for a second female candidate, Joumana Haddad, had initially seemed likely, with supporters wildly celebrating early exit polls the night before. Many gathered outside Beirut’s Interior Ministry in protest Monday afternoon when results showed she had lost, insisting that the election was rigged.

Machnouk said Monday that the winning candidate was Antoine Pano, a member of Lebanese President Michel Aoun’s party. 

Hariri’s losses underscored the way in which Lebanon’s system has often been used for horse-trading, with politicians and parties forming alliances of convenience to stay in power. 

Despite pressure from traditional supporter Saudi Arabia — which appeared to force Hariri’s short-lived resignation last year, in which he cited discomfort at the rise of Hezbollah — the prime minister did little to confront the Shiite militant group.

“Sunni voters have wanted a tougher approach to Hezbollah. The problem is that Hariri could not deliver,” Hokayem said. “His tactics to remain prime minister and maintain formal political power have eroded his political support.”

In a televised statement, Hariri said his group won 21 seats in Sunday’s vote, a third fewer than its 2009 tally. “My hand is extended to every Lebanese who participated in the elections to preserve stability and create jobs,” he said. The prime minister still heads the largest parliamentary bloc and appears likely to form a new national unity cabinet.

Suzan Haidamous contributed to this report.