Beirut (AFP) – Hanin Terjman was among the first outside her Beirut polling station Sunday: like many young Lebanese, she is voting for the first time and wants to see new faces in parliament.
Clicking away on her smart phone, the chic 21-year-old student waited nervously for the school-turned-polling station in the Ras al-Nabah district to open for Lebanon’s first parliamentary elections in nine years.
She was surrounded by delegates from the country’s elite parties, who sported hats with pictures of Prime Minister Saad Hariri and T-shirts in support of the rival powerful Shiite Amal Movement.
But Terjman wants to throw her support behind a list of outsiders including engineers and activists.
“We’re in a country whose rulers are putting pressure on us over who we are going to vote for. We should vote for new people who are going to change,” she said.
Terjman, who became of age to vote just one month ago, is among 800,000 registered voters — more than a fifth of the electorate — who were too young to cast a ballot in previous polls.
“It’s nice to feel like I belong to my country,” she said, donning a pink top, white headscarf, and thick black eyeliner.
Terjman, who studies education at the Lebanese University, said she will vote for the civil society list Kulluna Beirut, despite being told by friends that veteran politicians would not be easily unseated.
“I want to tell people to go vote for the person they think is appropriate and will improve their country, not people you ‘belong’ to, because that won’t get you anywhere.”
As she spoke, half a dozen supporters of Hariri’s Future Movement rushed to the school gate, waving ID cards and asking the soldier positioned there when they could be let in.
Beirut is split into two voting districts, with 19 seats up for grabs for candidates from Christian and Muslim sects.
Many powerful politicians, including Hariri, are running in Beirut, where massive posters of the rival candidates are omnipresent.
– First timers –
Lebanon elected 128 members to parliament in 2009, but a planned 2013 vote was delayed because of discontent with the majoritarian electoral law and concerns about a spillover from the war in neighbouring Syria.
Ali al-Ahmad, 21, came to the Ras al-Nabah station with a friend just moments after polls opened.
“It’s the first time for me, and we’re excited. A lot of people told me not to vote,” said Ahmad, who wore a black tee-shirt.
He said he would support candidates from the Shiite movement Hezbollah, which is backing the Damascus regime in the Syria war, and which many analysts say would likely hold on to its seats.
“Just as we were on the front lines and barricades, we’ll be behind the ballot boxes, we want a strong country with a strong economy,” said Ahmad.
Supporters of candidates running in Sunday’s race were distributing boxed breakfasts at decked-out stands near polling stations.
Many young voters came holding their elderly relatives, guiding them into the polling stations and trying to explain the new, more proportional electoral system to them.
Siwar Ibrahim came alone.
He is registered to vote in the Tariq al-Jdideh district, a built-up and conservative neighbourhood where Hariri’s party has strong support.
“It’s my first time and I hope I don’t get disappointed. I turned 21 on January 1,” said Ibrahim, a curly-haired visual artist, as he stood in line to head into the booth.
He said he turned down cash payments from traditional parties, insteading opting for Kulluna Beirut.
Ibrahim, who dreams of legislation that would back gender minorities, health care and human rights, said coming into the packed polling station felt threatening.
“I had to dress the opposite of what I usually look like in order to come here to vote safely. I had to take my earrings out, I had to look like what a man is supposed to look like,” he told AFP.
“I’m here, at least I tried. I don’t want to spend four years at home regretting that I didn’t vote.”
“It’s ok to be scared, that’s the challenge. Be scared, and vote.”