BEIRUT, May 6 (Reuters): Voters queued at polling stations across Lebanon on Sunday to take part in its first general election in nine years – an event seen as important for economic stability but unlikely to upset the overall balance of power.
Cars and mopeds were decked out with the flags of the main parties, loudspeakers blared songs in support of candidates near their electoral strongholds and young people wore T-shirts bearing the faces of political leaders.
The election is being held under a new proportional system that has confused some voters and made the contest unpredictable in formerly safe seats, but still preserves the country’s sectarian power-sharing system.
Whatever the result, another coalition government including most of the major parties, like the one that has governed since 2016, is likely to be formed after the election, analysts have said.
Getting the new government in place quickly is important to reassure investors of Lebanon’s economic stability. It has one of the world’s highest debt-to-GDP ratios and the International Monetary Fund has warned its fiscal trajectory is unsustainable .
“We hope we will open a new era,” said Mahmoud Daouk, voting in Beirut.
But some other voters were sceptical the election signalled an improvement in Lebanon’s political climate.
“The situation is actually worse now, not better … we lost the chance to hold them accountable nine years ago,” said Fatima Kibbi, 33, a pharmacist.
In some places queues to vote were so long that people waited over an hour, prompting calls to extend voting beyond 7 p.m. (1600 GMT). Nearly a quarter of voters had cast ballots across the country by 2 p.m, the Interior Ministry said.
Informal results are expected to start coming in overnight and official tallies in the coming days. Election law makes it illegal to publish forecasts of how the parties will perform before polls close.
However, analysts are closely watching the performance of Sunni Muslim Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri’s Future Movement party and that of the Iran-backed, Shi’ite Hezbollah group and its allies.
Iran and Saudi Arabia have often battled for influence in Lebanon as part of their wider regional rivalry. But in recent years, Riyadh has cut support for Hariri, backing that helped Future in 2009 as part of the March 14 coalition, which focused on making Hezbollah give up its arms.
That issue has been quietly shelved as the main parties focus on getting the economy back on track and grappling with the Syrian refugee crisis.
Donors pledged $11 billion in soft loans for a capital investment programme last month, in return for fiscal and other reforms, and they hope to hold the first follow-up meeting with the new government in the coming weeks.
Debt ratings agencies had stressed the importance of Lebanon going ahead with the election after parliament had extended its term several times.
After the last election in 2009, the onset of Syria’s civil war, the arrival of over a million refugees and a series of militant attacks aggravated internal political rifts.
Rival blocs in parliament could not agree on a new president between 2014-16 and repeatedly decided to delay elections, partly because of disagreement over moving from a winner-takes-all to a proportional voting system.
The new rules are seen as unlikely to undermine the long-entrenched political elite, a group that includes local dynasties and former warlords.
Mustapha Muzawwaq, 65, was sitting with neighbours in a side street drinking coffee. “We want the situation to stay as it is … At least we know the current MPs,” he said.
In municipal elections two years ago, independent candidates did well against established political parties by drawing on public anger at poor government services, including a crisis in which mountains of garbage piled in the streets.
Jonathan Dagher, 27, a campaigner for an independent candidate in the Chouf-Aley district of Mount Lebanon, said he was optimistic. “It’s the beginning of a long and difficult road towards change,” he said.
Parliament seats are divided evenly between Muslims and Christians, and further subdivided among their various sects. Lebanon’s president must always be Maronite Christian, the prime minister Sunni Muslim and the parliament speaker Shi’ite.
Voters are registered not where they live, but in the district their ancestors came from, meaning large numbers of voters have to travel from the capital, Beirut, to villages across the country.
“Voting should be made as easy as possible,” said Raja Riachi, the founder of a gaming start-up, who drove for an hour from his home in Beirut to vote in the village of Khenchara in the mountainous Metn district.
Despite some acts of violence and intimidation connected to the election in recent weeks, no major incidents were reported immediately before the voting or during the first hours after polls opened.
However, there was a security presence in Beirut on Sunday and a Reuters witness saw a long military column of armoured vehicles and other troop carriers driving slowly into the capital. Security forces stood sentry on street corners and near the polling booths.
Observers from the European Union and other international bodies are monitoring the poll. Chief E.U. observer Elena Valenciano said on Twitter its evaluation of the election was “very positive”.
Abu Sami, 40, a civil servant, said he was tired of the established politicians. “Today I will choose new faces,” he said.