4 things to know about Lebanon’s parliament elections

A woman supporter of Hezbollah casts her vote at a polling station during the parliamentary election in Tibnin, South Lebanon, May 6, 2018. REUTERS/Aziz Taher

Beirut: It’s Lebanon’s unique form of democracy.

Almost everyone in the country complains about it. The same political dynasties dominating year after year, and politicians work for their sect, or their own families. No one has repaired an electricity system that’s been decrepit for decades or organised the proper collection of garbage because of business feuds.

It’s also a tough system to change.

Each community fears losing power or patronage. After the 1975-1990 civil war, the balance between Shiites, Sunnis and Christians – the main sects among 18 official ones – preserves a stability that always seems on the verge of collapse, but, for the past decade at least, has not.

Here are four things to know about today’s parliamentary elections:

Some firsts

It’s the first time the Lebanese are voting for a parliament in nine years and the first election held since the outbreak of the Syrian war in 2011.

The vote has been postponed a number of times over 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.

There are a total of 3.6 million registered voters.

For the first time, women make 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.

Complicated law

The new election law is so complex that some say 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 seats.

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.

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The elephant in the room

Lebanon’s strongest political party is the only one with an active militia: Hezbollah.

The Iranian-backed Shiite faction has thousands of fighters in Syria supporting President Bashar Al Assad, an intervention that is deeply divisive in Lebanon.

Sunnis largely sympathise with the rebels trying to bring Al Assad down and resent Hezbollah’s political domination and its armed wing, which is more powerful than the national military.

But that issue has been too sensitive to feature in the current election.

Instead, many have focused on calls for the return of more than a million Syrian refugees, saying they threaten the sectarian balance and burden local infrastructure.

Dynastic politics

Even though the civil war ended 28 years ago, politics are still dominated by former warlords and family dynasties, who have always been able to settle elections before voters get to the polls.

Some are virtually untouchable.

The 80-year-old parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, a Shiite who has held the post for more than 25 years, is running virtually uncontested.

Others are now passing their seats on to their children.

Druze leader Walid Junblatt, 68, has stepped aside for his son, Taymour.

The seat of Sulaiman Franjieh, a 52-year-old Maronite Christian leader who is seen as a potential presidential candidate, is going to his son Tony.

Michelle Tueni, daughter of lawmaker and journalist Jibran Tueni, who was assassinated in a 2005 car bomb, is also running.

One Lebanese website listed second generation politicians running to replace their fathers, then posted pictures of their toddler children, captioned: “Your parliament members for 2025.”

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