Low turnout worries politicians as Lebanon voting ends

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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.

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.

Voters queued at polling stations across Lebanon on Sunday 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.

It’s the first time the Lebanese are voting for a parliament in nine years. It is also the first time elections are being held since neighboring Syria’s war began in 2011. The vote has been postponed a number of times over security concerns it would ignite tensions among Lebanon’s sects, already heightened by that war.

Lawmakers have haggled over election reform for years, finally passing a new law last summer to replace one in place since 1960.

The law allows expats to vote for the first time. Of 900,000 voters abroad, only 83,000 registered and just over half of them voted last week.

For the first time, women made up nearly 10 percent of the candidates, up from a meager 1.7 percent in 2009. Only four women made it to Lebanon’s 128-seat parliament in the last election, a dismal figure compared to other countries in the region. Also, a record number of civil society activists and independents are running, hoping to at least open a crack in Lebanon’s system.

The new election law is so complex that many have quipped they would rather stay at home because they can’t figure out how their vote will be computed.

The law implements a proportional system that awards seats by the share of vote received, instead of the former winner-takes-all system in each district. It reduces the number of electoral constituencies from 23 to 15, and allows voters to choose both an electoral list and a preferred candidate from that list.

In theory, it should allow candidates beyond traditional power players to win a seat in parliament. But it also preserves the sectarian divvying-up of seats in different districts; Muslims and Christians each get around half, and smaller communities the remainder.

Many will undoubtedly find fresh faces on their ballots as independent groups attempt to challenge the country’s political elites and establishments.

Among those new names voters in eastern Beirut will read on Sunday will be Ibrahim Mneimneh's, who is the founder of the Kelna Beirut, an off-shoot of the Lebanese grassroots campaign “Beirut Madinati” established in 2016 and contested the municipality elections then.

Back then, his group were part of many independent groups that rose up Lebanon’s 2015 garbage crisis but have split from the others leaving Mneimneh's list to contest against seven other lists in Beirut’s second district.

“We [Kelna Beiru] see the upcoming parliamentary elections as a station to engage with the people and show them our policies. We are encouraging voters to go to the polls as we see this election more like a referendum battle. A political line is needed that is in opposition to the establishment and out list represents the second voice needed in Beirut; a dissenting voice that believes in the application of the constitution and any vote for Kelna Beirut is a vote toward this approach,” Mneimneh told Al Arabiya.

As the leader of his list, Mneimneh will go head-to-head with eight other lists including one lead by current Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri and his Future for Beirut list of candidates.

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