Ruling parties to keep their clout as Lebanon votes

Beirut (AFP) –


Lebanon elects its parliament for the first time in nine years Sunday, with its ruling parties seeking to preserve a fragile power-sharing arrangement despite regional tensions.

The Iran-backed Hezbollah movement and its allies could stand to dominate parliament and reinforce their clout in Lebanon, a small country clamped between war-torn Syria and Israel.

A new voting system has raised some hope for an unprecedented civil society list to make a small dent in the decades-old monopoly of political dynasties but disillusionment is rife in the electorate.

The triumvirate heading the state is unlikely to change, with parliament speaker Nabih Berri almost certain to keep the post he has held since 1992 and Prime Minister Saad Hariri also set to stay put.

President Michel Aoun's position is not up for renewal on May 6 but his party is a key player in a dizzying game of alliances which leads allies in one district to be enemies in another.

Hezbollah, whose militia outguns the army and is listed by the United States as a terrorist organisation, is allied both to Berri and Aoun and is expected to chip at the camp led by Hariri's Sunni-dominated movement.

"Hezbollah and its allies will be the first beneficiaries" of the new electoral law, said pollster Kamal Feghali.

A clear win for Hezbollah, which is active in several conflicts in the region, could further fray the nerves of Israel and Washington.

Hezbollah is funded and armed by Shiite Iran while Hariri has historically been supported by Sunni regional kingpin Saudi Arabia. But both have appeared ready to continue sharing power and neutralise growing tension between their rival sponsors.

- Same alliance -

"These three forces will directly or indirectly be at the helm" after the vote, said Sami Atallah, director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies.

A fifth of this year's 3.7 million-strong electorate was too young to vote in the last legislative polls in 2009.

But the widespread perception that self-serving, hereditary and corrupt traditional parties have long sewn up a deal to preserve the status quo could keep many voters away on Sunday.

"What is there to be interested in? It's the same names, the same faces, the same joke," said Joumana, a 51-year-old secretary at a clinic in Beirut.

"My son and my daughter are doing their university studies in Europe. That is what's giving them a future, not the Lebanese state."

Members of Lebanon's vast diaspora voted abroad for the first time this year, but those who were able to register in time were in small enough numbers that they were not expected to have a major impact on the results.

A music video released this week by two young Lebanese sisters, Michelle and Noel Keserwany, has been doing the rounds on the internet.

"We've been fooled by the ruling tricksters," go the lyrics of the satirical song entitled "Again and again", which ridicules Lebanon's political dynasties and urges people to vote them out.

The political force that embodies change is a list called "Kulluna Watani" which federates civil society groups, including a movement born of protests over a waste management crisis that erupted in 2015.

In private, its leaders and strategists say snatching even one seat in parliament would be an achievement.

- 'Very corrupt' -

Among the list's candidates with the best chances is Paula Yacoubian, a prominent TV journalist who became a key figure in the election campaign and is one of a record 86 women to run for a seat.

"We have a very corrupt cast and there is a movement of brave people trying to tell them: 'We are not happy'," she told AFP.

The challenge of rousing lethargic voters is huge, however.

The country has gone through institutional crises that have left it without a president for two years and without a budget for 12 -- but many Lebanese argue you could hardly tell the difference.

The new electoral law adopted last year provides for some proportionality but sectarian quotas in each district and astute gerrymandering have diluted its impact.

Once tipped as a likely casualty of this election, Hariri now looks set to stay in the seat his billionaire father Rafiq, assassinated in 2005, had before him.

A bizarre sequence that saw him essentially detained in Riyadh and forced to announce his resignation on television last year eventually earned him cross-sectarian support at home and renewed solicitude from key partners France and the United States.

"There may be differences of opinion now and sectarian arguments but it's all vote-fishing tactics. After May 6, we'll see these main forces return to rule the country together," Sami Atallah said.