Lebanese vote in first general election in nine years

BEIRUT: 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 pm (1600 GMT). Nearly a quarter of voters had cast ballots across the country by 2 pm, 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 Prime Minister Saad al Hariri’s Future Movement party and that of the Hizbullah group and its allies.
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. — Reuters