Top parties seek to protect monopoly as Lebanon votes

by Layal ABOU RAHAL
A Lebanese man casts his vote in the country's first parliamentary election in nine years on May 6, 2018 as ruling parties expect to preserve a fragile power-sharing arrangement despite regional tensions

Lebanon held a much-delayed general election Sunday, with a new civil society list hoping for a breakthrough but traditional parties expected to renew their fragile power-sharing bargain.

Polling stations closed after 12 hours of voting that were marred only by minor incidents and were marked by what provisional estimates suggested was a low turnout.

Lawmakers extended their own mandate three times since 2009, ostensibly over security concerns linked to neighbouring Syria's war and political divisions that led to long and crippling institutional crises.

"This means that I voted, and I'm happy that I voted and took part in change," said Guy Farah, a 36-year-old salesman showing the ink stain on his thumb as he walked out of a Beirut polling station.

One of the main changes in this election is a complex voting system that introduces a degree of proportional representation which has allowed smaller parties to contend.

The traditional big players of Lebanon's sect-driven political life were under no immediate threat of having to loosen their decades-old stranglehold on parliament however.

Analysts predict that influential Shiite movement Hezbollah, backed by Iran and wielding a formidable arsenal it refused to give up after the civil war, would retain or slightly increase its clout in the legislature.

Prime Minister Saad Hariri's Sunni-dominated movement, which seems to have lost the lavish support it once enjoyed from Saudi Arabia, may shed a few seats but the 48-year-old is tipped to save his job.

- Weak turnout -

Lebanon has often been a scene where the rivalry between the region's two heavyweights has played out, but their political clients in this election seemed content to maintain the status quo.

With the turnout figure on course to fall short of the 54 percent mark set in 2009, several senior political leaders to made televised appeals for an eleventh-hour rush to the ballot boxes.

"No one should underestimate the importance of their vote or think that heading down to the ballot box is too much to ask," said Ahmad Hariri, the secretary-general of the premier's Future Movement.

An hour before voting was set to end, turnout stood at 46.8 percent, the interior ministry said.

No polling extension was decided but in some areas, large numbers of people already queueing when the clock struck 7:00 pm (1600 GMT) were still voting. In other polling stations, the counting was already under way.

More than 3.7 million Lebanese are eligible to vote, and will chose from 597 candidates who are running on 77 closed lists for a seat in the 128-strong parliament.

President Michel Aoun's position is not up for renewal but his Christian party is a key player in the vote, for which a reformed, more proportional electoral law is in force.

"The low turnout as of midday is without a doubt an indicator of the disillusionment among Lebanese," political analyst Karim Mufti said.

Experts differed on who would benefit the most from a low turnout as scenarios vary across the country's 15 districts, whose size and sectarian fabric are all different.

The new, pre-printed ballots used on Sunday perplexed some voters, causing delays in polling stations.

- First-timers -

Other voters explained that they refused to endorse their usual candidate because of an unsavoury alliance on a list that the new voting system no longer allows them to modify.

Many first-time voters in Beirut seemed keen to see new faces in parliament and voted for a civil society movement that has sought to compensate its lack of patronage networks and financial firepower with a dynamic social media campaign.

"It's the first time I vote," Therese, 60, told AFP outside a voting centre in central Beirut.

"I've come to support civil society because there's nobody else I like in this country, but I doubt they will win," she said.

The diagram of alliances across Lebanon's gerrymandered constituency map is an almost comical spaghetti jumble of local deals between parties working together in one district and competing in the next.

That has fuelled already deep disillusionment in a country where the same dynasties have held political power for decades and are widely seen as self-serving and corrupt.

Results, which are due to start coming in during the night, will be closely watched but analysts say that there is little room for surprises and that uneasy, sometimes fluctuating alliances between the main parties would remain the rule.

Scuffles broke out around several polling stations across the country and monitors reported a number of mostly minor incidents and violations but the European Union's observation mission said its assessment was positive.

A Lebanese man casts his vote in the country's first parliamentary election in nine years on May 6, 2018 as ruling parties expect to preserve a fragile power-sharing arrangement despite regional tensions