Lebanon voters go to polls amid low expectations

Lebanon voters go to polls amid low expectations

Voters in Lebanon went to the polls in the first national election since a disastrous economic collapse and an explosion that wreaked havoc on the Beirut waterfront in 2020, amid low expectations that the leaders they hold responsible will face a serious challenge to their stranglehold on the country.

A number of civil society candidates lined up against an entrenched ruling elite with pledges to change a political landscape in which feudal lords and their networks have enriched themselves since the end of the civil war.

The odds of a real breakthrough appeared to be slim as the polls closed on Sunday evening, with the most likely outcome being a return to some form of status quo, where power is apportioned along established sectarian lines, with existing control structures barely diluted.

In the run-up to the election, the former prime minister and leader of Lebanon's Sunni Muslim community, Saad Hariri, had urged a voter boycott, and many of his followers appeared to pay attention, with low turnout in Sunni parts of the country amid a modest turnout nationwide.

Many of the polling stations were without electricity and some were short on ballot papers, a microcosm of the country s disintegration under fuel and power shortages, and hyperinflation as the local currency continues to lose value.

There was no shortage of fresh dollars, which had been used to lure the support of last-minute voters, particularly families who had arrived with multiple members, at some polling centres.

One woman said they had to give me something. One voter, Joseph Karam, 41, said he had considered voting for civil society candidates but had decided to cast his ballot for the Lebanese Forces, a civil-war era party that has been resurgent in recent years and has won the patronage of Gulf states for its willingness to confront Lebanon's dominant political bloc, Hezbollah.

A total of 718 candidates from 15 electoral districts were running for seats in the 128-member parliament. Hezbollah and its allies retained 71 seats going into the poll. Their support base was expected to hold firm against a handful of secular Shia candidates and a push by mainstream parties backed by western states.

The Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections said its delegates were forced to withdraw from two polling stations because of threats by Hezbollah supporters and their allies in the Shia Amal group.

The poll seemed to have defied predictions of more serious unrest, despite the fact that fistfights were reported at some booths, and there were claims of harassment by rival blocs at other locations.

Anwar Habib, a voter from the southern city of Sidon, said the issue is counting these ballots. This is not a secure process. Hezbollah and Amal will do everything they can to win. Preliminary results were expected to be released by Monday. There are weeks of political horse-trading before a government is formed.