and BASSEM MROUE
BEIRUT - Lebanon’s first national elections in nine years were marked by a tepid turnout Sunday, reflecting voter frustration over endemic corruption and a stagnant economy.
Politicians had urged citizens to vote, and security forces struggled to maintain order as fights broke out in and around polling stations.
President Michel Aoun broadcast an appeal to voters to participate in a televised address an hour before polls closed in the evening. “If you want change, you should exercise your right” to vote, he said in a message published on Twitter at the same time.
The elections were the first since war broke out in neighboring Syria in 2011, sending over one million refugees to Lebanon, a small country with a population estimated at around 4.5 million. The war has divided the country, pitting parties supporting the Iran-sponsored Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria to aid President Bashar Assad against Saudi-aligned parties opposed to it.
Early results were expected to start coming in late Sunday, but official results were not expected to be announced before Monday.
The low turnout - between 32 percent and 42 percent in Beirut precincts, according to Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk - betrayed widespread voter apathy for the main political currents governing the country and left open the possibility that outside candidates could win seats in Parliament.
Machnouk put national turnout at 49 percent, compared to 54 percent in 2009. The drop came despite a reformulated electoral law designed to encourage voting through proportional representation.
“These leaders are destroying homes, not building them,” said Ahmad Khashouq, 43, a private security guard in Beirut. Khashouq, from the town of Zahle in the country’s Bekaa Valley, said he was not voting in the elections after feeling his vote was wasted in 2009, the last time elections were held.
More than 500 candidates ran for 128 seats in Lebanon’s National Assembly.
Fist fights broke out in and around polling stations around the country, as rival partisans accused each other and election officials of ballot stuffing and illegal campaigning.
In the Choueifat district, a crowd inside a station accused the station supervisor of illegal voting practices and smashed a ballot box, spilling its contents across the floor. The army ordered the media to turn off their cameras.
In Zahle, politician Mryiam Skaff accused members of the right-wing Lebanese Forces party of beating up her supporters in polling stations.
The voting was unlikely to change the existing balance of power among the major political factions in Lebanon, but many hoped new contenders from civil society groups could challenge the decades-old sectarian political system.
Sarah Brjawi, 33, said she was voting for Nouhad Yazbek, a woman running on a coalition list of political independents and activists running in Beirut.
Brjawi, who walked the streets of Beirut’s Ras el-Nabea neighborhood with her clown troupe before voting, said she was perplexed by voters who said they supported their satirical act, poking fun at the country’s endemic corruption and political stagnation, while saying they would vote for establishment parties again.
“This country is really bipolar,” said Brjawi.
The main race was between a Western and Saudi-backed coalition headed by Prime Minister Saad Hariri and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah group, part of a region-wide power struggle that is tearing apart the Middle East.
“This shows Lebanon’s democracy and the importance of democracy. This is a democratic wedding, and as we said from the start, congratulations to whoever wins tonight,” Machnouk, the interior minister who was a candidate on Hariri’s list, said after casting his ballot in Beirut.
As Hariri entered a public school in Beirut to vote, a woman in a wheelchair complained that polling stations were not equipped for disabled voters.
“We are human beings. It is not fair that we have to be carried like bags of potatoes,” Silvana Lakkis told him. The prime minister promised to address the problem in the next elections.
“When we see what is happening in countries around us and Lebanon is holding democratic elections, this shows that Lebanon is fine,” Hariri said after waiting in line around 20 minutes to cast his ballot. “Order is nice,” he quipped.
Hezbollah has sent thousands of fighters to back Syrian government forces, a move that has been criticized by many Lebanese, mainly Sunni Muslims and Christians, who see the group as dragging their country into regional conflicts.
Leading Hezbollah legislator Ali Ammar defended his group’s involvement in Syria, saying it is protecting Lebanon from the “evil powers” of the Islamic State group and al-Qaida.
In Hezbollah strongholds in southern Beirut, there was a steady flow of voters. Streets were festooned with candidates’ posters and Hezbollah’s signature yellow flags. Outside polling stations, Hezbollah supporters displayed a replica of the voting ballot on a big board and explained to voters which among the color-coded lists was theirs and how to vote for it. They wore yellow shirts with the slogan “We protect and build” written on them.
“We love the resistance,” Amira Sidani, 85, said after casting her ballot.
This year’s vote was according to a new election law providing for proportional representation for the first time. Voters chose one list of allied candidates as well as a preferred candidate from among them. In the past, the winning list took all the seats in an electoral district.
The change cracked open the door for more outsiders to compete in elections, challenging political titans who have long ruled Lebanon based on a sectarian and family patronage system.
Mohammed Ali, 30, riding his scooter to the beach, said he was not voting because there are no choices. He said his relatives vote for whoever pays them, but he was not interested in the money.
The legislature’s term was supposed to expire in 2013, but lawmakers approved several extensions since then, citing security concerns linked to the spillover from Syria’s war. Lebanese who support opposing sides in the war have clashed on a number of occasions, and Sunni extremists have carried out several bombings.
Some 586 candidates, including 86 women, were running for the 128-seat parliament, which is equally divided between Muslims and Christians.
Hezbollah and its allies were expected to add more seats, while Hariri was likely to lose several. Some of his Sunni supporters saw him as being too soft on Hezbollah, and the billionaire businessman also faced criticism after laying off dozens of employees from his companies in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia.
Still, Hariri would most likely be named to form a national unity Cabinet after the vote. The rival sides are expected to recreate the unity government that currently exists, which includes Hezbollah.
The vote came a week after Lebanese living oversees voted in 39 countries around the world. It was the first time Lebanon’s large expatriate community was allowed to take part in an election. That, along with the new electoral law, injected some unpredictability to the process.