INTERACTIVE: Lebanon outside [Getty Images]
INTERACTIVE: Lebanon outside [Getty Images]

Lebanon is heading for its first parliamentary elections in nine years.

On May 6, more than 3.6 million registered voters in the country will be eligible to choose among 583 candidates competing for 128 parliamentary seats.

The candidates are spread across 77 lists in 15 districts, which have 27 subdistricts.

For Lebanese nationals living abroad, some polls opened on April 27. Already, almost 66 percent of 12,615 registered voters living in six Arab countries have cast their ballots, marking a first in Lebanese history, according to state-run National News Agency (NNA).

Overseas voting in the six countries (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman) was followed on April 29 by voting in 33 countries in the Americas, Europe, Australia and Africa. Official figures put the total number of registered Lebanese expatriate voters at 82,965 worldwide.

Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil wrote on Twitter that he was “very proud” to witness the first Lebanese expat voting abroad in the country’s history.

“It marks the beginning of a track that will not stop until the return of all Lebanese to their country,” he posted, as he followed the voting on screen at the foreign ministry.

Results from the overseas voting will only be published after the closure of polls on May 6. President Michel Aoun has requested a public holiday from May 4 to 8 to “facilitate the electoral process” since many schools will be used as polling stations.

These elections will be the first after nearly a decade of turbulent politics. Since 2009, the Lebanese have watched their government collapse twice (in 2011 and 2013 ), the presidency sit vacant for 29 months (from 2014 to 2016), and their parliament extend its mandate several times.

Political landscape

Lebanon’s current political system was created after a 15-year civil war that ended with the Saudi-negotiated Taif Accord in 1989. Under its terms, the parliament’s 128 seats were equally divided among Muslims and Christians, reinforcing the formula of 1943’s National Pact, which stipulated that the country’s president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament a Shia Muslim.

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WATCH

47:30

The country’s fragile, sect-based political balance was rendered even more complex by the assassination of late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005.

Hariri’s death inspired a grassroots movement called the Cedar Revolution, which held the Syrian government responsible and called for the end of Syria’s 29-year military occupation of Lebanon. Two major protests in the country’s capital, Beirut, marked a split of the political arena into two broad camps: the pro-Syrian, Hezbollah-led March 8 bloc and the anti-Syrian, Western and Saudi-backed March 14 bloc. This split has polarised the country’s politics ever since, albeit with frequent fissures and the lapse – at least officially – of the March 14 bloc.

Parliament

In the Lebanese parliament, half the seats – 64 – are allocated to Muslim candidates and half to Christians.

The same legislature has been in place since 2009.

The current cabinet, formed in December 2016, consists of Prime Minister Saad Hariri and 29 other ministers.

General Michel Aoun ascended to the presidency in 2016.

The position had remained vacant for two years; Michel Suleiman, the previous president, left office after his term expired in 2014.

Saad Hariri has served as prime minister twice: from 2009 to 2011 and from December 2016 to now.

Late last year, in a bizarre episode, Hariri abruptly announced his resignation during a trip to Saudi Arabia, only to withdraw it and announce his renewed commitment to Lebanon’s policy of “dissociation” from regional affairs upon returning to the country shortly after.

What’s different from the 2009 elections?

A new electoral law: Since 2009, parliament extended its term several times, once due to a stalemate over electoral reform that threatened to leave the country without a legislature altogether.

Most political parties agreed on the need to reform the former law – a majoritarian voting system often referred to as the “1960 law” – but disagreed over what system should replace it.

The May 6 elections will be putting a new and contentious electoral law, finally passed in June 2017, to the test.

The new legislation reduces Lebanon’s number of districts and introduces proportional representation, but adds some complicated elements to the voting process.

According to this law, seats will be allocated proportionally according to candidate lists. Seventy-seven lists were formed by multiple parties in a tangled web of contradictory alliances – which may disrupt the domination of the March 8 and March 14 blocs.

Each ballot will also include a preferential vote, or “sawt tafdili”, a compromise that preserved Lebanon’s winner-takes-all system and broke with most proportional models.

Essentially, voters will cast two votes on their ballot: one for a candidate list, which may include multiple parties, and one for their favourite candidate from within that list.

Analysts observing the election cycle expressed mixed speculations over the new law’s influence on voter turnout.

Political activism

Lebanon has a long history of vibrant civil society and grassroots associations, which can be traced back to the Ottoman era.

But since the participation of underground university clubs in 2005’s Cedar Revolution, youth activism “gradually merged into a sociopolitical movement” that attracted actors from “inside and outside the mainstream parties and groups”, wrote Zeina el-Helou,…