A policeman stands guard as women queue to cast their votes at a polling station during municipal elections in Houla village, southern Lebanon on Sunday. Image Credit: REUTERS

Beirut: Amid more than 490 violations during Sunday’s municipal and mayoral elections in two southern Lebanese governorates, South Lebanon and Nabatiyyah, clear differences emerged as the Future Movement, Amal and Hezbollah parties all claimed major victories.

What was apparent, however, were major cracks appearing in traditional strongholds of both Amal and Hezbollah.

In the Tyre province, for example, ‘Development and Loyalty’ lists running against the Lebanese Communist Party, civil society activists, and families were not always successful. Although 18 of the 63 municipalities in the province won uncontested, carefully planned opposition angered Hezbollah officials and led deputy Hassan Fadlallah, who cast his ballot in the town of Ainata, a Hezbollah stronghold, to declare: “I call for broad participation throughout the South and commitment to the electoral lists.”

In Bint Jbeil, which fielded 36 municipalities, eight won uncontested as lists were formed to compete against the ‘Development and Loyalty’ rolls too, whereas in Hasbayyah, several villages including Al Habbariyyah and Kfar-Hmam witnessed fierce electoral battles between the Communist Party (LCP) on one side and Al Jamaa Al Islamiyah and the Future Movement on the other.

The main surprise was the defeat of a Hezbollah-Al Ahbash list in Kfar-Shuba, near the border with Israel, as an eclectic list backed by the LCP, deputy Anwar Al Khalil and several families won.

Much like their alliances in Mount Lebanon, the Lebanese Forces (LF) and the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) managed to score several victories, including in the city of Jezzine, where the ‘We are for Jezzine’ list won. It defeated a rival list backed by major families and the Phalange Party. The LF-FPM duopoly scored another major victory in Maghdushih, south of Sidon, under the slogan ‘Maghdushih Gathers U’s’. Interestingly, this group defeated the incumbent municipal chief, Georges Yunan, supported by deputy Michel Mousa, who is close to Speaker Nabih Berri.

Observers and commentators who filled the airwaves on Sunday night talk shows unanimously affirmed that the LF and FPM, on one side, and Amal and Hezbollah on the other, were not as victorious as their representatives affirmed, because most citizens, Muslims as well as Christians, perceived these alliances as little more than stale efforts to salvage establishment power bases. That Hezbollah could lose in a spot like Kfar-Shuba, or that its list could barely win in Baalbeck, and, likewise, that the LF-FPM duopoly was forced to resort to unconventional methods, including bribery, to secure a razor-edge victory in Jounieh (where 347 votes separated the top winners out of nearly 5,000 cast ballots), highlighted the great popular divide.

Even in Beirut, where barely 22 per cent of the electorate participated, the great development was the rise of the Beirut Madinati coalition of civil society groups that aimed to wrest power away from elites, who failed to assume their responsibilities and work in earnest to ensure that basic necessities (water, electricity, garbage collection, etc), were provided.

A preliminary conclusion of these latest developments was, according to several observers representing various political stripes, an inability to renew current parliamentary mandates.

In other words, the 1960 electoral law — which would be the mechanism used in 2017 unless new regulations are introduced to alter the system — would not guarantee victory to establishment candidates and may, on the contrary, usher in dramatic changes. Leading party electoral lieutenants will now evaluate these municipal elections tests to best determine how to win, if at all, and make the necessary adjustments to the proposed electoral law.

The municipal polls first kicked off in the capital Beirut, as well as the Bekaa Valley on May 8, and were followed by elections in Mount Lebanon on May 15. The last round will be held on May 29 in North Lebanon and Akkar.

In Jezzine, the FPM parliamentary candidate — who was also supported by LF, the Phalange Party and leading families — Amal Abu Zayd, won the sole by-election in contention during this cycle to fill the seat left vacant by the death of deputy Michel Helou (FPM) as he garnered 14,653 votes.

Ebrahim Azar, his main contender, managed to gain 7,759 votes, while Salah Nicolas Jibran secured 3,162 votes, and Patrick Rizkallah received 399 votes. The son of a former deputy, Azar was backed by Speaker Berri, whose Amal Movement hoped to snatch the Maronite seat from the Speaker’s arch-rival, presidential contender Michel Aoun.

The penultimate round of Lebanon’s municipal elections posted approximately the same turnout percentages as similar polls in Beirut, the Bekaa Valley and Mount Lebanon.

Citizens — and some anxious refugees who mistakenly lined up believing that any resident could join in — stood in long queues outside polling stations.

Interior Minister Nouhad Al Mashnouq announced that voter attendance was 44 per cent in Sidon, 57.5 per cent in Sidon’s surrounding villages, 53 per cent in Jezzine, 42.5 per cent in Bint Jbeil, 47 per cent in Tyre, 43.2 per cent in Marjayun, 47 per cent in Hasbayyah and 49 per cent in Nabatiyyah.

According to Voice of Lebanon radio, a Syrian refugee in Jwayyah tried to cast her vote for a ‘Development and Loyalty’ [a generic term used by Amal and Hezbollah throughout the area] list, though it was unclear how she entered the polling station without a Lebanese identity card.

Although army and Internal Security Forces were heavily deployed to ensure that the election process was safe, two significant incidents marred the day in the Sidon area.

In Harit Sidon, where Hezbollah and Amal enjoyed a strong presence, a quarrel erupted between supporters of the list they backed and others who supported the incumbent municipal chief.

The fighting led to a suspension of the voting though the ban was lifted approximately 30 minutes later.

According to National News Agency, a dispute also erupted at a polling station in Sidon’s Al Arba’in neighbourhood after a citizen was spotted paying an electoral bribe.

Authorities arrested the culprit though the official state news agency failed to identify the group or party making the payment(s).

It was also unclear how much money exchanged hands since Al Mashnouq did not provide details.

Among jubilant victors was former Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri whose Future Movement-endorsed list in Sidon won two thirds of the vote.

Mayor Mohammad Al Saudi, one of the few respected municipal officials throughout the country in 2015-2016 on account of his expert handling of the garbage crisis, gained a new six-year mandate.

His list was also backed by Al Jamaa Al Islamiyah and former municipal chief Abdul Rahman Al Bizri. It defeated two other lists — one headed by Bilal Sha‘aban and backed by the Popular Nasserite Organisation of former deputy Usamah Sa’ad, and another headed by former Al Jamaa Al Islamiyah senior official Ali Shaikh Ammar who pretended to represent supporters of imprisoned Salafist cleric Ahmad Al Assir.