Beirut, Lebanon – Voting wound down in Lebanon‘s first parliamentary election in nearly a decade after perpetual delays stymied the country’s ability to resolve its most pressing issues.
A new electoral law redrew the country into 15 electoral districts, further entrenching Lebanon’s foundational sectarian makeup, and introduced proportional representation for the first time.
Under terms of the new law that introduced proportional representation, voters cast two votes; one for a list of candidates and one for a single preferred candidate.
Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk will hold a press conference at 9am local time (06:00 GMT) on Monday to announce the election results.
The election came after an intense campaign cycle where establishment parties hastily glued together a dizzying map of local alliances to navigate the new electoral law, which appeared to offer an opportunity for change.
Some 3.8 million Lebanese were registered and about 800,000 were new eligible voters. About 6,800 polling stations opened across the country under the close watch of security forces.
Voting ended at 7pm local time (16:00 GMT) but some stations stayed open longer to allow those in line to cast their ballots.
The Daily Star newspaper quoted the interior ministry as saying voter turnout stood at 46.9 percent as of 6pm.
Sunday’s election took place for the first time after nine years of political turbulence that left the country without a president for two years, and saw parliament extend its tenure several times.
A young couple smiled as they walked out of one polling station in Achrafieh, an affluent Beirut neighbourhood.
“I am honestly very happy. It’s been a while since we last voted,” said Nisreen Affar, an insurance company employee.
“I am happy with the change this will bring about – something we have a role in, something that has our imprint,” she said. “We have to serve the country for it to serve us.”
Nisreen’s husband, Elias Affar, a civil engineer, said he hopes for change. “If our choices are wrong, we will sort it out in four years,” he said.
Lena Misakyan, of Armenian descent, agreed. “One of my sons couldn’t find a job here and so he left to Italy. My eldest son is a policeman but he can’t afford to build a house or get married. It’s time for change,” she said. “Our sons are fleeing abroad.”
Shortly after he cast his ballot on Sunday morning, President Michel Aoun gave a brief statement to the press, addressing one of the more perplexing aspects of the new law – the preferential vote.
The new electoral law drove political parties to form a spectrum of new and unlikely alliances on candidate lists across the country. Aoun said the preferential vote was necessary as it was unlikely most voters wouldn’t care for every name on the candidate list.
Calling voting “a sacred duty”, the president said that while many other countries enforce mandatory voting, Lebanon values the freedom of each citizen to make their own choice.
“But the Lebanese should not neglect this right,” he added.
In 2013, elections were postponed because of security reasons and again in 2014 and 2017 as politicians disagreed on the particulars of a new electoral system.
Lebanon’s political paralysis over the past decade has frustrated an already disillusioned public.
The situation came to a climax in 2015 with massive protests on the streets of Beirut dubbed the “garbage crisis”, as politicians failed to deal with rubbish building up in neighbourhoods.
A popular movement that arose in 2015 was You Stink, which bolstered the efforts of Lebanon’s first political outsiders. Calling themselves Beirut Madinati, they sought votes in the capital’s municipal elections in 2016.
In less than two years, the movement has expanded into a coalition of 11 different civil society groups and independents competing for seats under one banner called Kollouna Watani – Arabic for We Are All the Nation.
“The system is ready for reform, but it won’t reform itself. That’s why we need reformists to go into the system and start change from within,” said Laury Haytayan, a candidate running with Kollouna Watani, in an interview with Al Jazeera days before voting commenced.
“After the war, it was more or less a continuation of the war but without the violent conflict … They [politicians] wanted to stay in power and they thought the only way [to] stay in power is to really highlight religious differences,” she said, in reference to Lebanon’s 15-year civil war that ended in 1990.
Many current leading political figures previously led rival militias during the bloody conflict, or are the sons and daughters of civil war-era leaders.
“Nobody is saying the battle we are having is an easy one. Yes, we are going against a sectarianism that has been really deeply rooted in the conscience of the Lebanese [people]. But if we pull through, it means that enough people are ready for change,” said Haytayan.
Despite the emergence of independent groups participating in the vote on anti-establishment platforms, some Lebanese expressed deep scepticism their efforts would succeed.
“There is no water, no electricity, no insurance, no healthcare, no retirement benefits. Would any of that change if I vote? No,” said an elderly street bookseller, who refused to give his name in eastern Zahle city on Saturday.
Pressed as to why he would not be voting for independents, he said: “Elections here are for big fish with a lot of money. Good guys are stepped on here. They won’t succeed in getting votes here.”