|Hezbollah supporters wave flags during a rally in Beirut's suburbs [GALLO/GETTY]
Lebanon holds its general election on June 7, eight months after the parliament approved a new electoral law.
The law, which is a revised version of one passed in 1960, was agreed in September after months of wrangling between the March 14 majority bloc and the Hezbollah-led March 8 opposition.
Voting in the election will be held over a single day rather than staggered over four successive weekends, as was the case in the 2005 election.
But seats in the parliament will still be distributed according to Lebanon's delicate religious and sectarian make-up.
|Division of seats in parliament by religion
Under the provisions of the 1989 Taif Accord, which paved the way for the end of Lebanon's civil war in 1990, parliamentary seats are allocated on a 50:50 basis between Muslims and Christians.
The seats are then further divided between all of Lebanon's 18 officially recognised religious sects.
There have been several calls over recent years for Lebanon to move away from its sectarian political system, Riad Tabbarah, director of the Center for Development Studies and Projects in Beirut, says.
"Lebanon was created on the basis of sects. The 1943 National Pact, which accompanied independence from France, also based the parliamentary system on sect," he says.
"But every time there is a document written about the distribution of government power by sect, it says that the situation is only temporary and the country should work towards eliminating this arrangement.
"The problem is that it is a vicious circle. If you make the sects important for political reasons, politicians will play their sect in their own interests."
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All Lebanese citizens from the age of 21 can vote in the general election. Lebanon’s 400,000-strong Palestinian population do not have the vote.
During negotiations for revisions to the electoral law in 2008, a move to lower the voting age from 21 to 18 will not apply to the 2009 election. However, a voting age of 18 is expected to put into place in time for municipal elections in 2010.
While expatriate Lebanese cannot vote in the 2009 general election by proxy or postal ballot, the 2008 law mandates voting for expatriates to take place in the next general election, which is scheduled for 2013.
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In line with new legislation, voting in the 2009 general election will take place across 26 electoral districts.
In most cases, the voting districts correspond to each of Lebanon's 25 administrative districts (qada), with some exceptions:
The southeastern qada of Marjayoun and Hasbaya comprise one electoral district
The northeastern qada of Baalbek and Hermel form one electoral district
The central western qada of West Bekaa and Rashaya have been joined into one electoral district
The southwestern single qada of Zahrany and Sidon have been split into two separate electoral districts
Three separate electoral districts will also be in place in the qada of Beirut, the Lebanese capital:
District one comprises Achrafieh, Rmeil and Saife in eastern Beirut
District two covers the northeastern precincts of Medawar, Marfaa and Bachoura
District three contains Mazraa, Ain el-Mreisse, Mina el-Hosn, Moussaytbeh, Ras Beirut and Zokak el-Blat
There are more electoral districts in the 2009 election than in the general elections of 2000 and 2005, when voters across 14 designated electoral wards cast their ballots.
The 128 parliamentary seats - each of which correspond to a particular religious confession - are distributed across the 26 electoral districts.
For example, the northern electoral district of Tripoli has eight parliamentary seats allocated – five for Sunnis, and one each for Alwaites, Maronites and Greek Orthodox.
Religious confessions have seats in some areas but not in others. For example, while Sunnis have five seats in the electoral district of Tripoli, they have none in Ba'abda – in that district, Shias have two seats, Maronites have three seats and the Druze have a single seat.
While the division of Lebanon into a greater number of electoral divisions compared to previous elections was a key demand of the Hezbollah-led opposition, there are disadvantages to the new system, Tabbarah says.
"When you have a very small district, the interests of the people running for election will be restricted to their district, with the majority of the people there being from the same sect.
"Politicians therefore have to play up to their sect – that is one disadvantage, because it increases the division between sects nationwide. The smaller districts also mean that candidates restrict their vision to that small part of the country.
"The head of the municipality is supposed to take the local view; deputies are meant to take a national view so that they can legislate for the good of the whole country."
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Lebanese voters can cast ballots for as many candidates across the number of seats available in the district in which they live, in a process known as block voting.
In Aley for example, candidates from the Druze, Maronite and Greek Orthodox confessions can run for the seats available in that electoral district - in this case, there are two Druze seats, two Maronite and one Greek Orthodox.
Religious confession is not a bar to voting. So although a voter in Aley may be Sunni, they can still vote for their preferred candidate to hold the Druze, Maronite and Greek Orthodox seats designated for that electoral district.
In Aley's case, there are five seats, so voters there each have five votes – their two preferred Druze candidates, their two preferred Maronite candidates, and their one chosen Greek Orthodox candidate.
|Block voting allows voters to cast their ballet for multiple candidates [GALLO/GETTY]
Voters are not given a traditional ballot paper at the polling station. Instead, they can either mark their preferred candidates on a blank piece of paper or bring a 'prepared ballot' which already has the names of a list of candidates printed on it.
The prepared lists are usually agreed well in advance by Lebanon's various political parties, in an attempt for each of them to maximize their influence in electoral districts. It is not unusual for fierce political rivals to forge alliances on prepared lists in the run-up to the election.
"The list system is not very strange. In the West, you have people who are socialists, people who are communists, people who are liberal – and they run in the elections together sometimes," Tabbarah says.
"The only strange thing about the list system in Lebanon is that sometimes you have a list that has people who do not necessarily believe in the same thing; they are just temporarily together because they find advantage in being together for the election. Then they split after the election."
The prepared ballot papers are usually passed out to voters by leaders of the community, or on the day of voting by party loyalists waiting outside polling stations.
Parliamentary seats are distributed according to the number of votes that candidates from a particular confession receive. So, in Aley:
The winners of the two Druze seats will be the two Druze candidates receiving the most votes for their confession
The winners of the two Maronite seats will be the two Maronite candidates who get the most votes for their confession
The winner of the single Greek Orthodox seat will be the candidate taking the most votes for their confession
Even if the second-placed Greek Orthodox candidate wins more votes than the candidates from any other confession, the Greek Orthodox will not win a seat – as only one Greek Orthodox seat is available.
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Source: Al Jazeera