BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanon’s polling stations opened Sunday for the first parliamentary elections in nine years, with people lining up early in the morning to take part in a vote that is fiercely contested between rival groups backed by regional and international powers.
Sunday’s vote is taking place amid tight security, with army and police forces deployed near polling stations and on major intersections. Electoral campaigns have been tense as each group has mobilized its supporters, with fist fights and shootings occurring in several areas in recent weeks.
The main race is between a Western-backed coalition headed by Prime Minister Saad Hariri and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah group. The vote also reflects regional tensions between Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia and Iran, which back the rival groups.
The vote is the first since Syria’s war broke out in 2011. Hezbollah has sent thousands of fighters to back President Bashar Assad’s forces, a move that has been harshly criticized by many Lebanese, mainly Sunni Muslims and Christians who see the group as pulling the country into regional conflicts.
The house’s term was supposed to expire in 2013, but lawmakers have approved several extensions since then, citing security concerns linked to the spillover from Syria’s war. Lebanese who support opposing sides in the war have clashed on a number of occasions, and Sunni extremists have carried out several bombings. The war next door driven more than a million Syrian refugees into Lebanon, straining the country’s economy and infrastructure.
There are about 3.6 million eligible voters, and early results are expected after polling stations close at 7 p.m. (1600 GMT). Some 586 candidates, including 86 women, are running for the 128-seat parliament, which is equally divided between Muslims and Christians.
This year’s vote is according to a new election law that is based on proportional representation, implemented for the first time since Lebanon’s independence in 1943. Voters will choose 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 the electoral district.
Hezbollah and its allies are likely to add more seats, while Hariri is likely to lose several. Some of his Sunni supporters see him as being too soft on Hezbollah, and the billionaire businessman has also faced criticism after laying off scores of employees from his companies in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia.
Still, Hariri will most likely be named to form a national unity Cabinet after the vote. Rival sides can hardly govern effectively without each other, and are expected to recreate the unity government that currently exists, which includes Hezbollah.
The vote comes a week after Lebanese living oversees voted in 39 countries around the world for the first time ever.