Crisis-ridden Lebanese begin voting for new parliament

BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanese headed to the polls early Sunday to elect a new parliament as an economic collapse is transforming the country and expectations are low that the vote could bring about meaningful change.

A new crop of candidates from the 2019 protest movement is turning against the country’s entrenched ruling class, blamed for the collapse, in hopes of overthrowing them. But they are divisive and lack the money, experience and other advantages traditional political rulers have.

People started voting shortly after the polls began, under the watchful eye of security forces spread across the country. Sunday’s vote was Lebanon’s first since its implosion began in October 2019, sparking widespread anti-government protests.

It was also the first election since a massive explosion at Beirut’s port in August 2020, which killed more than 200 people, injured thousands and devastated parts of the Lebanese capital. The explosion, widely blamed on negligence, was sparked by hundreds of tons of improperly stored ammonium nitrate that was set ablaze in a port warehouse following a fire at the facility.

The vote was seen as a last chance to reverse course and punish current politicians, most of whom took power from Lebanon’s sectarian political system and the spoils of war plundered at the end of the 15-year civil war in 1990. With doubts and widespread resignation, the vote will surely bring back the same parties, so little change.

Mainstream parties and politicians remained strong in the vote, while opposition figures and civil society activists looking to overthrow them were fragmented. Lebanese political parties have long relied on a system that encourages voters to vote in exchange for favors and personal gain.

Since the start of the financial crisis, tens of thousands of people have lost their jobs, the Lebanese pound has lost more than 90 percent of its value, and many have left the country in search of opportunities abroad. Three-quarters of the country’s 6 million people, including 1 million Syrian refugees, now live in poverty.

Some 718 candidates on the 103 lists are running for 128 MPs. Voting is held every four years. In 2018, voters gave the powerful Hezbollah and its allies a 71-seat majority.

Lebanon has more than 3.5 million eligible voters, many of whom will vote in its 15 constituencies. Earlier this month, Lebanese living abroad voted in their country of residence.

Western-backed mainstream parties want to wrest a parliamentary majority from Hezbollah, while many independents want to break out of traditional party lists and candidates.

This year’s vote comes as the powerful Sunni leader, former prime minister Saad Hariri, has suspended his political work. Some have warned that this could help Hezbollah’s Sunni allies win more seats.

Following the election results, Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s government will become a caretaker cabinet until the president asks to negotiate with new members of parliament to elect the next prime minister.

The new parliament will also elect a new head of state when President Michel Aoun’s six-year term expires at the end of October.

According to a constitution drafted shortly before the end of the civil war, seats in Lebanon’s parliament and cabinet are divided equally between Muslims and Christians.

As of Saturday afternoon, the Lebanese army had begun to deploy in areas of potential tension, mainly in areas around Beirut and nearby Mount Lebanon.

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