BEIRUT — Lebanese voted for a new parliament Sunday against the backdrop of an economic meltdown that is transforming the country and low expectations that the voting would significantly alter the political landscape.
A new crop of candidates from the 2019 protest movement are running against the country's entrenched ruling class that is blamed for the collapse, hoping to unseat them. But they are divided and lack the money, experience and other advantages held by traditional political rulers.
People began casting their ballots shortly after the polls opened under the watchful eye of security forces that have fanned out across the country. Sunday's vote is the first since Lebanon's implosion started in October 2019, triggering widespread anti-government protests.
It is also the first election since the massive August 2020 explosion at Beirut's port that killed more than 200 people, injured thousands and destroyed parts of Lebanon's capital. The blast, widely blamed on negligence, was set off by hundreds of tons of poorly stored ammonium nitrate that ignited in a port warehouse after a fire broke out at the facility.
The voting is seen as a last chance to reverse course and punish the current crop of politicians, most of whom derive their power from Lebanon's sectarian political system and spoils taken at the end of its 15-year civil war in 1990. But expectations for real change were low amid skepticism and widespread resignation that the vote was sure to bring back the same political parties.
"I did what I can do and I know the situation will not change 180 degrees," said Rabah Abbas, 74, after casting his ballot in Beirut. He fears Sunday's election is only symbolic and that Lebanon will be stuck again in post-election political bickering over the formation of a new government and electing a new president in October.
"We will hit a wall again. Lebanon is a hopeless case," he said.
The extent of Lebanon's collapse was on display Sunday. In the northern city of Tripoli, Lebanon's most impoverished city, several polling stations were without electricity and voters had to climb several flights of stairs to cast their ballots. Voters were seen using the light from his mobile phone to check his list before putting it in the box.
Mainstream political parties and politicians remained strong going into the vote, while opposition figures and civil society activists hoping to unseat them are fractured. Lebanese parties have long relied on a system that encourages voters to cast ballots in return for favors and individual benefits.
Money flowed, with political parties offering cash bribes, sandwiches, transportation and other favors to voters.
Since the meltdown began, tens of thousands of people have lost their jobs, the Lebanese pound has shed most more than 90% of its value and many have left the country seeking opportunities abroad. Three quarters of the country's six million people, including 1 million Syrian refugees, now live in poverty.
The World Bank has described Lebanon's collapse as one of the world's worst in the past 150 years.
Some 718 candidates on 103 lists are running for seats in the 128-member parliament. The vote is held once every four years. In 2018, voters gave the powerful Hezbollah and its allies the majority with 71 seats.
Lebanon has more than 3.5 million eligible voters, many of whom will cast their ballots in its 15 electoral districts. Earlier this month, Lebanese living abroad cast their ballots in countries where they live.
Western-backed mainstream parties are hoping to strip the parliamentary majority from Hezbollah, while many independents are hoping to break through traditional party lists and candidates.
The vote this year comes as a powerful Sunni leader, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, suspended his work in politics. Some have warned this may help Hezbollah's Sunni allies to win more seats.
After the election results are out, the government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati will become a caretaker Cabinet until the president calls for consultations with the new parliament members, who choose the next premier.
The new parliament will also elect a new head of state after President Michel Aoun's six-year term expires at the end of October.
Lebanon's parliament and Cabinet seats are equally divided between Muslims and Christians under the constitution that was drafted shortly before the civil war ended.
As of Saturday afternoon, the Lebanese army began deploying in areas where tensions could be expected, mainly in areas around Beirut and the nearby Mount Lebanon.