Campaign posters for parliamentary candidates elections include Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah adorn a street in Beirut, Lebanon. Image Credit: AP

Damascus: Lebanese go to the polls today, the first time in nine years, to choose from 538 parliamentary hopefuls vying for 128 seats.

Lebanon’s 3.6 million eligible voters will be choosing candidates from 15 districts and 27 subdistricts.

Nearly a decade of political gridlock resulted in a prolonged presidential vacuum and repeated extension of the existing chamber, whose term ought to have ended back in 2013.

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri takes a selfie with young girls during an elections campaign, in Beirut, Lebanon. - AP

Young Lebanese hope a new electoral law, passed last year, will help end decades of political monopoly which has dominated the country since Ottoman times.

The law scraps the “winner takes all” formula, creating cracks through which outsiders can penetrate.

The 1989 Taif Accords, which ended Lebanon’s brutal 15-year civil and sectarian war, divided parliament along sectarian lines, giving Muslims and Christians 64 seats each.

On the Muslim side, it introduced two seats for Lebanese Alawites, who were not represented in the past, and raised the quota of Lebanese Druze from 6 to 8.

Dominant alliances

The two dominant rival coalitions are the pro-Saudi March 14 coalition and the pro-Iranian March 8 coalition.

Hariri waves on stage during a campaign rally in the southern port city of Sidon. - AFP

The March 14 alliance is headed by current Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri, the son of assasinated former premier Rafik Hariri.

It includes the majority Sunni Future Movement and the Lebanese Forces group led by veteran Christian politican Samir Geagea.

The alliance is still strong but the silent walkaway of prominent members of the alliance, including Druze leader Walid Junblatt, has diminished some of its earlier sway.

On the opposite end of the political spectrum is the March 8 coalition.

The alliance was formed by Shiite heavyweights, Hezbollah, led by Hassan Nasrallah and the Amal movement, led by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and was later joined by Michel Aoun, leader of the largely Christian Free Patriotic Movement, who went on later to become president.

This alliance has also taken blow with the walkout of Maronite leader Sulaiman Franjieh, who objected to Aoun’s presidency.

For the March 14 Coalition to retain their majority bloc in parliament and the premiership they need to win a minimum of 21 seats tomorrow (they currently hold 33 out of 128).

3.6m eligible voters will vote for candidates in 15 districts

Major campaigns have been underway in Beirut, being a stronghold of the premier, but the alliance is also heavily campaigning in Baalbak, part of Hezbollah’s homebase in the northern Bekka, and Tripoli, where Hariri is leading a vicious battle against his former security chief and justice minister (now turned bitter opponent) Ashraf Rifi, and ex-Prime Minister Najib Mikati.

While Hariri’s victory in the capital is practically assured, his coalition faces stiff opposition in the Hezbollah stronghold of Baalbak-Hermel district, which holds 10 seats.

The March 14 coalition hopes to capitalise on voter apathy there.

During the 2009 elections less than 60 per cent of Baalbek Shiites voted—having complained of gross government neglect and poor services.

Speaking to Gulf News, prominent journalist Nicholas Blanford said: “Hezbollah is facing some challenges in its core areas, particularly the Baalbek-Hermel region. The Shiite tribes there are very powerful and have been exhibiting signs of unhappiness with Hezbollah and Amal stemming from endemic poverty which neither party seems to have been able to address (apart from employment as Hezbollah fighters).”

Hezbollah is facing some challenges in its core areas, particularly the Baalbek-Hermel region. The Shiite tribes there are very powerful and have been exhibiting signs of unhappiness with Hezbollah and Amal stemming from endemic poverty which neither party seems to have been able to address (apart from employment as Hezbollah fighters)”

 - Nicholas Blanford, journalist

Blanford, the author of Warriors of God, a seminal book about Hezbollah, added: “The tribes have threatened not to vote in the election and Hezbollah seems to be taking it seriously.”

However, the Iran-backed group which wields significant influence in the country through its intimidation tactics, is not too worried about how many seats it wins in the parliament.

“Regardless of its representation in parliament, Hezbollah will remain a dominant political force in Lebanon for the foreseeable future. It is more concerned with voter turnout. Poor turnout in areas it dominates would signal that their popularity may be waning among its core Shiite constituency,” Blanford said.

When all is said and done, the elections will likely be a vote between Arabism and Persianism—at least that’s what Interior Minister Nihad Mashnouq has said.

New electoral law

According to the new law, candidates cannot run on their own but have to be part of a list that covers no less than 40 per cent of the number of seats allocated for that specific district.

Voters cannot vote for candidates from different lists and can only select a slate in-full with a preferential vote for a single candidate.

State employees show their ink-stained finger after casting their vote in Marjayoun, Lebanon May 3, 2018. -Reuters

To put it in simpler terms, voters will now be able to cast two ballots, one for the candidate’s list, which can include multiple parties, and one for their preferred candidate.

For a slate to win, it would need to achieve an electoral threshold, being the number of votes in a district divided by the number of seats.

Candidates who receive the highest preferential votes and are on winning lists are then allocated parliament seats by sect in their respective districts after religious quotas are filled.

Voting will be spread across several days and voters are required to fill out a biometric voting card which aims to limit fraud.

Yara Nassar, the executive director of the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections (LADE) thinks that the new election law heralds positive change, while pointing out several worrisome loopholes.

The districts were formed to suit the interests of the established political parties and the introduction of the non-refundable $5,300 fee on parliamentary hopefuls forces those with limited means to drop out"

 - Yara Nassar, executive director, Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections (LADE)

Incentives and scare tactics

Intimidation is reportedly in full swing on the streets of Lebanon ahead of today’s vote.

In private, sources who spoke to Gulf News on the condition of anonymity say that Hezbollah was mobilising recently nationalised Syrian Shiites.

Zein, a 56-year old from Damascus, told Gulf News that a Lebanese lawyer applied on his behalf for the citizenship after he was able to dig up old family papers which proved an ancestral link—all he had to do was vote for Hezbollah at the polls in return.

While only around 100 Syrian Shiites are expected to vote, every vote counts in a country sharply divided along sectarian lines.

Syrian refugee children play outside their family tents at a Syrian refugee camp in the town of Bar Elias, in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. -AP

Conversely, Hezbollah has been trying hard to push out Lebanon’s huge Syrian refugee population—the majority of which are Sunnis—fearing they could upset the delicate confessional balance if they marry into Lebanese families.

On 22 April, a Shiite candidate in Chaqra, a village in Bint Jbeil in southern Lebanon, was attacked by thugs, whom he accused of being agents of Hezbollah.

Ali Amin, a prominent journalist, was campaigning with the Shabina Haki (We Have Had Enough of Talk) Movement which is challenging Hezbollah.

“We cannot say that democracy is thriving in South Lebanon,” Amin told The Arab Weekly.

538 parliamentary hopefuls are vying for 128 seats

Meanwhile, candidates running against the Future Movement accuse Hariri supporters of firing gunshots outside their campaign office on Hamra Street.

An online video shows a vandal tearing down a campaign poster for Mohammad Chatila running on the “Beirut Dignity” ticket.

The party has denied the accusations saying that campaign intimidation was ‘not a part of our culture’.

Another major problem is the fact that by law, campaigners are allowed to bring voters from outside the country and to pay for their airplane ticket.

“While not illegal, this essentially means parties are buying votes,” Nassar said.

Lebanon’s key previous parliamentary elections

Lebanon formally gained independence from France on November 22, 1943. It had held parliamentary elections earlier that year, and the members serve out their four-year term.

In 1947, recently-independent Lebanon hosts its vote and 55 parliamentarians are elected. Under a religious power-sharing agreement, the body is governed by a ratio of six Christians to every five Muslims.

The body brings incumbent prime minister Riad Al Solh back to power. Parliament would later be expanded to 99 members.

Timeline of Lebanese Polls

1992: a peaceful poll

The elections of 1992 are the first after Lebanon’s civil war, during which no elections were held. The last previous vote had been in 1972.

They are also the first time voters elect 128 parliamentarians, after the agreement that ended the war also expanded the body and divided it evenly between Muslims and Christians.

The 1992 vote sees many new parties come to power, including Hezbollah and the Amal Movement, the country’s two Shiite powerhouses.

2005: free of Syrian interference

The 2005 elections are the first to be held after Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon.

Syrian soldiers leave one of their posts in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli 15 July 2003. - AFP

The last Syrian troops had left Lebanon on April 26, after a 29-year deployment that granted Damascus the last word in Lebanon’s three prior votes (1992, 1996, 2000).

The polls are held from May 29 to June 19 in four stages, being held successively in the country’s main regions.

The new parliament was dominated by two main blocs.

The absolute majority was held by the anti-Syrian March 14 bloc, which was led by Sa’ad Hariri - son of assassinated former prime minister Rafik - and included Druze chief Walid Junblatt and key Christian parties.

The second force in parliament was the March 8 coalition formed by the pro-Syrian Amal and Hezbollah parties.

Christian general Michel Aoun, who had returned to the country after 15 years in exile in France, flipped his anti-Syrian stance and allied with March 8.

2009: Western-backed bloc boosted

On June 7, 2009 Hezbollah and its allies go head to head with the anti-Syrian majority.

The elections, which followed four years of instability, take place for the first time in a single day in the presence of more than 200 foreign observers.

Some 50,000 soldiers and police officers were deployed across the country.

Since the last elections, the country had suffered a spate of political assassinations, the brutal 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, fighting in a Palestinian refugee camp between the army and Islamists in 2007, an acute political crisis and confessional clashes in 2008 that had left around 100 dead.

The March 14 coalition wins 71 out of the 128 seats against 57 for the Hezbollah camp, and Hariri is named prime minister.

The parliament later extends its term three times, pointing to the risk of a spillover into Lebanon of the war in Syria and the need to amend the electoral law.

In October 2016 Michel Aoun becomes president, having gained the support of Hezbollah, after a 29-month institutional vacuum. Hariri is renamed prime minister.

In June 2017 the rival political parties agree on a new electoral law after months of laborious negotiations.

-With inputs from AFP