Voters queued outside polling stations across Lebanon on Sunday for the chance to take part in its first general election in nine years – an event seen as important for economic stability but unlikely to upset the overall balance of power.
Cars and mopeds were decked out with the flags of the main parties, loudspeakers blared songs in support of candidates near their electoral strongholds and young people wore T-shirts bearing the faces of political leaders.
The election is being held under a new proportional system that has confused some voters and made the contest unpredictable in formerly safe seats, but still preserves the country’s sectarian power sharing system.
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.
Getting the new government in place quickly would reassure investors of Lebanon’s economic stability. It has one of the world’s highest debt-to-GDP ratios and the International Monetary Fund has warned its fiscal trajectory is unsustainable.
“We hope we will open a new era,” said Mahmoud Daouk, voting in Beirut.
But some other voters were sceptical the election signalled an improvement in Lebanon’s political climate.
“The situation is actually worse now, not better… we lost the chance to hold them accountable nine years ago,” said Fatima Kibbi, 33, a pharmacist.
Voting is scheduled to end at 7 p.m. (1600 GMT). Unofficial results are expected to start coming in overnight. Election law makes it illegal on Sunday to publish forecasts of how the parties will perform before polls close.
However, analysts are closely watching the performance of Sunni Muslim Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri’s Future Movement party and that of the Iran-backed, Shia Hezbollah group and its allies.
Lebanon has periodically been an arena for the intense regional competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
However, in recent years, Riyadh has pulled back from its previous support for Hariri, backing that helped Future in 2009 when it was part of the ‘March 14’ coalition focused on making Hezbollah give up its massive arsenal.
That issue has been quietly shelved as the main parties have focused on getting the economy back on track and grappling with the Syrian refugee crisis.
Donors pledged $11 billion in soft loans for a capital investment programme last month, in return for fiscal and other reforms, and they hope to hold the first follow-up meeting with the new government in the coming weeks.
Debt ratings agencies had stressed the importance of Lebanon going ahead with the election after parliament had extended its term several times.