Lebanon holds first election in nine years

Lebanon holds first election in nine years

Lebanese prime minister and candidate for the parliamentary election Saad al-Hariri shows his ink-stained finger after casting his vote in Beirut, Lebanon, on Sunday. 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 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 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 rating agencies had stressed the importance of Lebanon going ahead with the election after parliament had extended its term several times.