World

Lebanon votes, but few have hopes for change

Prime Minister Saad Hariri marked his ballot as he voted at a polling station in Beirut on Sunday. It was the first election in Lebanon in almost a decade.
Anwar AmroAFP/Getty Images
Prime Minister Saad Hariri marked his ballot as he voted at a polling station in Beirut on Sunday. It was the first election in Lebanon in almost a decade.

BEIRUT — Lebanese voters cast ballots Sunday in the country’s first election in almost a decade, hoping for change but expecting little.

As polling booths filled up, voters spoke of a country that was stuck. A political class riven by corruption, a refugee crisis, without end, a hobbled economy — Lebanon’s short-term prognosis is not rosy.

‘‘But if you don’t try, you’ll never know what might have changed,’’ said Jehan Kansa, 53, as she watched voters stream towards a polling station in the Hezbollah-dominated suburb of Dahiye.

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Sunday’s parliamentary elections were governed by a complex new voting law that is intended to allow for the entry of new political players while preserving the country’s sect-based political system.

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The makeup of the Parliament could have significant implications for the country’s future path, and for the balance of power in the Mideast.

The main race was between a coalition headed by the country’s Sunni prime minister, Saad Hariri, and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, a Shi’ite paramilitary group. Hariri’s government is backed by the West and Saudi Arabia.

Hezbollah, which has risen to become a key political player in Lebanon, hoped that the vote would return its parliamentary alliance’s first majority, and with it, the power to veto decisions on security and foreign policy that it did not agree with.

‘‘If it fails to get a majority, then we are likely to see a reproduction of the status quo,’’ said Mohanad Hage Ali, director of communications for the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.

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The elections were the first since war broke out in neighboring Syria in 2011, sending over one million refugees to Lebanon, a small country with a population estimated at around 4.5 million.

The war has divided the country, pitting parties supporting the Iran-sponsored Hezbollah’s intervention in to aid President Bashar Assad against Saudi-aligned parties opposed to it.

Although rival political leaders had used their final hours of campaigning to urge supporters to vote in high numbers, the Interior Ministry put the national turnout at 49 percent, the Associated Press reported. Analysts said the low number was an indication of voter frustration, as well as confusion over the new electoral system.

But for those who did turn out, many crowding polling stations in the early morning, the election was seen as a rare chance to push incremental change in a country that badly needed it.

For anyone younger than 30, Sunday’s vote marked the first chance to cast a national ballot in their lifetimes. ‘‘Lebanon has a lot of issues but I love this country. People still hold onto hope, it’s a hope that a better day is coming,’’ said one 22-year-old, who gave only her first name, Mariam.

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Although the Lebanese Parliament’s term expired in 2013, it has been renewed several times with officials citing security concerns linked to the Syrian war.

The Lebanese army moved to secure the streets of Beirut overnight; military vehicles rolled through a usually crowded street of bars and clubs as soldiers controlled the flow of traffic.

Anticipation had built for weeks as candidates campaigned vociferously, their faces looming over the city from billboard posters and banners plastered across shops and residential buildings. At polling stations across Beirut, the mood was upbeat throughout the morning as families turned out with their children and loyalists blared music from loudspeakers.

But as the day wore on, the stream turned into a trickle at many polling places.

Voters interviewed Sunday said they were worried about corruption throughout Lebanon’s political elite. But few believed that the candidates and parties that had promised to tackle it would look closely at their own.

In an interview with leading Hezbollah candidate Ali Ammar Sunday morning, a Lebanese journalist grilled him on corruption allegations against a political ally.

He immediately changed the subject.

One Uber driver, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he was not voting because he expected the ‘‘same faces’’ to return to Parliament.

‘‘I’m driving today; I’m just carrying on with my job,’’ he said. ‘‘The candidates who stood in our district will disappear again as soon as they get the votes. I think it’s best to stick with something a little more stable than voting — like my job.’’

Hezbollah has sent thousands of fighters to back Syrian government forces, a move that has been criticized by many Lebanese, mainly Sunni Muslims and Christians, who see the group as dragging their country into regional conflicts.

Leading Hezbollah legislator Ali Ammar defended his group’s involvement in Syria, saying it is protecting Lebanon from the ‘‘evil powers’’ of the Islamic State and Al Qaeda, the AP reported.

In Hezbollah strongholds in southern Beirut, there was a steady flow of voters. Streets were filled with candidates’ posters and Hezbollah’s yellow flags.

Outside polling stations, Hezbollah supporters displayed a replica of the voting ballot on a big board and explained to voters which among the color-coded lists was theirs and how to vote for it. They wore yellow shirts with the slogan ‘‘We protect and build’’ written on them.

This year’s vote was according to a new election law providing for proportional representation for the first time. Voters chose one list of allied candidates as well as a preferred candidate from among them. In the past, the winning list took all the seats in an electoral district.

The change cracked open the door for more outsiders to compete in elections, challenging political titans who have long ruled Lebanon based on a sectarian and family patronage system.