Lebanon awaits results of first parliamentary elections in almost a decade
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Polls closed across Lebanon Sunday in the country’s first parliamentary elections in nine years with all eyes focused on the electoral battle between a Shia alliance backed by Iran and PM Saad Hariri’s party backed by Saudi Arabia.
The overall atmosphere on Sunday was festive, according to FRANCE 24’s Sanam Shantyaei, reporting from the Ashrafieh district of the Lebanese capital. “People have been beeping their car horns, we’ve had music on the streets of Beirut,” she said.
Voter turnout however was lower than in past Lebanese parliamentary elections, reflecting public frustration with political elites in a country plagued with endemic corruption and a stagnant economy.
A provisional turnout figure of 49.2 percent was given by Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk – lower than the 54 percent of voters who cast a ballot in 2009. Turnout was particularly low in the Christian-dominated areas such as the Beirut I district, which includes Ashrafieh.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun appealed to voters to vote in a televised address an hour before polls closed. "If you want change, you should exercise your right" to vote, he said in a message published on Twitter at the same time.
Security was tight at polling stations with a few reports of skirmishes between supporters of some candidates, particularly in the Beirut II district of the capital and in the eastern Lebaneses city of Zahlé in the Bekaa Valley. But they were quickly brought under control by security forces.
The elections are the first since war broke out in neighbouring Syria in 2011, sending over one million refugees to Lebanon, a small country with an estimated population of around 4.5 million. The war has divided the country, pitting parties supporting the Iran-sponsored Hezbollah's intervention in Syria to aide President Bashar Assad against Saudi-aligned parties opposed to it.
More than 500 candidates were running for 128 seats in Lebanon's parliament.
Proxy power battle between Iran and Saudi Arabia
The voting is unlikely to change the existing balance of power among the major political factions in Lebanon, but many hope new contenders from civil society groups can challenge the decades-old sectarian political system.
The main race is between a Western- and Saudi-backed coalition headed by Hariri and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah group, part of a region-wide power struggle that is tearing apart the Middle East.
"This shows Lebanon's democracy and the importance of democracy. This is a democratic wedding, and as we said from the start, congratulations to whoever wins tonight," said Machnouk, who is running on Hariri's list, after casting his ballot in Beirut.
As Hariri entered a public school in Beirut to vote, a woman in a wheelchair complained that polling stations were not equipped for disabled voters.
"We are human beings. It is not fair that we have to be carried like bags of potatoes," the woman, Silvana Lakkis, said. The prime minister promised to address the problem in the next elections.
"When we see what is happening in countries around us and Lebanon is holding democratic elections, this shows that Lebanon is fine," Hariri said after waiting in line for around 20 minutes to cast his ballot.
Hezbollah has sent thousands of fighters to back Assad's forces, a move that has been criticised by many Lebanese, mainly Sunni Muslims and Christians, who see the group as dragging the country into regional conflicts.
Leading Hezbollah legislator Ali Ammar defended his group's involvement in Syria, saying it protected Lebanon from the "evil powers" of the Islamic State group and al Qaeda.
In Hezbollah strongholds in southern Beirut, there was a steady flow of voters Sunday. Streets were festooned with candidates' posters and Hezbollah's signature yellow flags. Outside polling stations, Hezbollah supporters displayed a replica of the voting ballot on a big board and explained to voters which among the colour-coded lists is theirs, and how they can vote for it. They wore yellow shirts with the slogan "We protect and build" written on them.
New electoral law introduces proportional representation system
This year's new election law is based on proportional representation for the first time. Voters chose one list of allied candidates, as well as a preferred candidate from among them. In the past, the winning list took all the seats in the electoral district.
That cracked open the door for more outsiders to field the elections, challenging political titans who have long ruled the country based on a sectarian and family patronage system.
Mohammed Ali, 30, riding his scooter to the beach, said he's not voting because there are no choices. He says his family members will vote for whoever pays them, but he's not interested in the money.
Although the outgoing parliament's term ran from 2009 to 2013, lawmakers postponed a parliamentary vote three times, citing security concerns linked to the spillover from Syria's war. Lebanese who support opposing sides in the war have clashed on a number of occasions, and Sunni extremists have carried out several bombings.
Hezbollah and its allies are likely to add more seats, while Hariri is likely to lose several. Some of his Sunni supporters see him as being too soft on Hezbollah, and the billionaire businessman has also faced criticism after laying off scores of employees from his companies in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia.
Still, Hariri will most likely be named to form a national unity cabinet after the vote. The rival sides are expected to recreate the unity government that currently exists, which includes Hezbollah.
The vote comes a week after Lebanese living oversees voted in 39 countries around the world. It was the first time Lebanon's large expatriate community was allowed to take part in the vote. That, along with the new electoral law, has injected some unpredictability to the process.
(FRANCE 24 with AP)