Low turnout and high stakes as battles play out across Lebanon

Beirut: Participation in Lebanon’s election on Sunday appeared low, as parties struggled to persuade people to go to the polls despite a new voting system designed to improve representation.
But the turnout varied dramatically between districts. There were low rates in Beirut 1, where there is a Christian majority, with no more than 19 percent by the afternoon, but people voted in larger numbers in places with Sunni majorities, such as Saida (almost 50 percent) and Beirut 2 (above 33 percent).

In Baalbek-Hermel, which is predominantly Shiite, officials had to request more ballot boxes because so many voters turned up.

The varying turnout reflected the tough competition between the two main parties dominating Lebanese politics: the Future Movement of Sunni Prime Minister Saad Hariri, and Hezbollah, the Shiite militant and political organization backed by Iran.

The new complex voting system based on proportional representation also presented problems.

Candidates and parties complained of the slow voting process caused by the new method, which the voters were struggling to get used to.

This led to the formation of long queues and some even giving up and going home rather than wait several hours to cast their ballots. Others decided to postpone voting until later in the day.

Three pens with embedded cameras were seized with voters in the Bekaa — in Zahle, Buarij, and Kafar Zabad.

Brig. Gen. Elias Khoury, secretary of the Central Security Council, said 52 violations were recorded.

“These included voters recording their voting processes behind the partition — a prohibited act that cancels the voter’s ballot,” he said.

Voter turnout was slow in the morning in the main cities but in the villages and towns of the provinces, voter enthusiasm exceeded expectations.

Yahya Shams, head of the “Dignity and Development” list in Baalbek-Hermel, which was competing against the Shiite alliance’s list, said that recorded violations included using vehicles to block the roads and preventing voters from reaching voting centers.

“Hezbollah supporters also rallied around the voting centers in an attempt to intimidate voters,” he added, stressing that he had made a complaint about the violations.

In the south, anti-Hezbollah candidate Ali Al-Amin said there had been attempts to prevent his supporters from entering the voting centers.

Al-Amin was treated in hospital after he was attacked by Hezbollah supporters last month during campaigning.

The elections were held amid intense security measures taken by the army and the internal security forces. Specialist patrols watch deployed in Beirut and other areas to try to ensure bitter rivalries did not cause violence.

Cars flaunting Hezbollah and Amal Movement flags were seen carrying voters from Beirut’s southern suburbs to the city center.

Hariri waited his turn with voters at a polling station in Beirut before casting his ballot in front of throngs of photographers.
“Order is good,” he said as he left the voting center.

“I did my duty and voted like any other Lebanese citizens. As we look around us and see that Lebanon is holding democratic elections, we know that the country is in good shape.”
Some voters told Arab News how they were prompted to take part in the election by the unruly behavior of some of the party supporters.

Manal, a young woman from Beirut, said a group of Hezbollah supporters roamed the streets near her home the night before, shooting in the air.

“I did not wish to vote, but what happened prompted me and my brother to go to a voting center and elect the Future Movement’s list,” she said.

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