Voters in Lebanon have gone to the polls in the first national election since a disastrous economic collapse and an explosion that wrecked 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 chances of a real breakthrough appeared slim as the polls closed on Sunday evening, with the most likely outcome being a return to some form of the 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 heed, with low turnout in Sunni parts of the country amid a modest turnout nationwide.
Many polling stations were without electricity and some were short on ballot papers, in a microcosm of the country’s continuing disintegration under fuel and power shortages, and hyperinflation as the local currency continues to lose value.
At some polling centres, there was no shortage of the precious commodity of fresh dollars, which had been used to lure the support of last-minute voters, particularly families who had arrived with multiple members.
“They have to give me something,” said one woman at a west Beirut polling station. “What else am I going to get from these people?"
At another polling station in the Keserwan region, 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. Going into the poll, Hezbollah and its allies retained 71 seats. 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 had been forced to withdraw from two polling stations after threats by Hezbollah supporters and their allies in the Shia Amal group.
While fistfights were reported at some booths, and there were claims of harassment by rival blocs at other locations, the poll seemed to have defied predictions of more serious unrest.
“The issue now is counting these ballots,” said Anwar Habib, a voter from the southern city of Sidon. “This is not a secure process. Hezbollah and Amal will do anything they can to win.”
Preliminary results were expected by Monday. Weeks of political horse-trading are then expected before a government is formed.