Top parties seek to protect monopoly as Lebanon votes

Top parties seek to protect monopoly as Lebanon votes

Lebanese prime minister and candidate for the parliamentary election Saad al-Hariri shows his ink-stained finger after casting his vote in Beirut, Lebanon. REUTERS

Lebanon held a much-delayed general election on Sunday, with a new civil society list hoping for a breakthrough but traditional parties expected to renew their fragile power-sharing bargain.

Polling stations closed after 12 hours of voting that were marred only by minor incidents and were marked by what provisional estimates suggested was a low turnout.

Lawmakers extended their own mandate three times since 2009, ostensibly over security concerns linked to neighbouring Syria's war and political divisions that led to long and crippling institutional crises.

"This means that I voted, and I'm happy that I voted and took part in change," said Guy Farah, a 36-year-old salesman showing the ink stain on his thumb as he walked out of a Beirut polling station.

One of the main changes in this election is a complex voting system that introduces a degree of proportional representation which has allowed smaller parties to contend.

The traditional big players of Lebanon's sect-driven political life were under no immediate threat of having to loosen their decades-old stranglehold on parliament however.

Analysts predict that influential Shiite movement Hezbollah, backed by Iran and wielding a formidable arsenal it refused to give up after the civil war, would retain or slightly increase its clout in the legislature.

Prime Minister Saad Hariri's Sunni-dominated movement, which seems to have lost the lavish support it once enjoyed from Saudi Arabia, may shed a few seats but the 48-year-old is tipped to save his job.

Lebanon has often been a scene where the rivalry between the region's two heavyweight has played out but their political clients in this election seemed content to maintain the status quo.

With the turnout figure on course to fall short of the 54 percent mark set in 2009, several senior political leaders to made televised appeals for an eleventh-hour rush to the ballot boxes.

"No one should underestimate the importance of their vote or think that heading down to the ballot box is too much to ask," said Ahmad Hariri, the secretary-general of the premier's Future Movement.

No polling extension was decided but in some areas, large numbers of people already queueing when the clock struck 7:00 pm (1600 GMT) were still voting. In other polling stations, the counting was already under way.

More than 3.7 million Lebanese are eligible to vote, and will chose from 597 candidates who are running on 77 closed lists for a seat in the 128-strong parliament.

President Michel Aoun's position is not up for renewal but his Christian party is a key player in the vote, for which a reformed, more proportional electoral law is in force.

"The low turnout as of midday is without a doubt an indicator of the disillusionment among Lebanese," political analyst Karim Mufti said.

Experts differed on who would benefit the most from a low turnout as scenarios vary across the country's 15 districts, whose size and sectarian fabric are all different.

The new, pre-printed ballots used on Sunday perplexed some voters, causing delays in polling stations.