BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanese began voting on Sunday in their first general election for nine years, one that is seen as unlikely to upend the country’s basic contours of power but is important for economic stability.
The streets of Beirut were quiet early on Sunday, but small crowds had gathered around the schools being used as polling stations and walls were plastered with party flags and pictures of the leading candidates.
Abu Sami, 40, a civil servant, said he was tired of the established politicians. “Today I will choose new faces,” he said.
Lebanon has mostly weathered the regional storm caused by seven years of war in neighboring Syria that has drawn in regional powers and unleashed a wave of refugees, but it has gone through several internal crises since the last election.
Television broadcasts showed voters queuing at polling stations across the tiny Mediterranean country to cast their ballots under new voting rules that still preserve the country’s sectarian power sharing system.
Voting is scheduled to last from 7 a.m. (0400 GMT) until 7 p.m. (1600 GMT), with unofficial results expected to start coming in overnight and a formal tally announced in the coming days.
Election law makes it illegal to publish forecasts of how the parties will perform. Whatever the result, another coalition government including most of the major parties, like that which has governed since 2016, is likely to be formed after the election, analysts have said.
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.
The country has periodically been an arena for the intense regional competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia. However, in this election, Riyadh has pulled back from its previous support for Hariri, backing that helped Future in 2009.
Getting a new government in place quickly would reassure investors of Lebanon’s economic stability after donors pledged $11 billion in soft loans for a capital investment program last month, in return for fiscal and other reforms. The first follow-up meeting is expected within weeks.
Lebanon has one of the world’s highest debt-to-GDP ratios and the International Monetary Fund has warned its fiscal trajectory is unsustainable.
Ratings agencies had stressed the importance of Lebanon going ahead with the election after parliament had extended its term several times as a sign that the country was returning to normal after years of political difficulty.
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 decided three times to delay elections, partly because of disagreement over moving from a winner-takes-all to a proportional voting system.
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.
The complicated new system has confused some voters and made the contest unpredictable in formerly safe seats. But it has done little to undermine the long-entrenched political elite, a group that includes local dynasties and former warlords.
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.
Despite some acts of violence and intimidation connected to the election in recent weeks, no major incidents were reported in the immediate run-up to voting.
However, there was a security presence in Beirut on Sunday and a Reuters witness saw a long military column of armored 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.
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Reporting by Angus McDowall; Editing by Nick Macfie