Lebanon heads to the polls for the first time in nine years to vote in Sunday's parliamentary elections.
From the Syrian civil war sending shockwaves through its diminutive neighbour to the temporary resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri in Riyadh, a lot has happened in Lebanon since the last general election and much has changed.
Our man on the ground, Ali Harb, will be driving across Beirut, speaking to voters and bringing you all the colour of polling day, with Chloe Domat doing the same up in the north's Tripoli.
Feel free to leave comments and news tips below on Twitter @MiddleEastEye and Facebook.
Photo: A woman shows her ink-stained finger after casting her vote during the parliamentary election in Beirut, Lebanon, (Reuters)
Voter turnout at 46.88 per cent: Interior ministry
The interior ministry has announced that voter turnout stood at 46.88 per cent at 6 pm.
Though the number will surely rise somewhat, that's significantly lower than the almost 54 per cent in 2009, and perhaps surprising for Lebanon's first parliamentary election in nine years, though apathy over politics in the country shouldn't be underestimated.
Turnout between 31 and 63 percent across Lebanon with both districts of the capital Beirut witnessing the worst turnout (31 and 37 percent) pic.twitter.com/oegIlPvu4b
— Ali Harb (@Harbpeace) May 6, 2018
#Lebanon's Interior Ministry: Voter turnout by 6pm (one hour before polls close) is at 46.8%
This is surprisingly low for the 1st elections in 9 years. Many complaints coming thru over the slow process at the polls
More crucially, the level of disillusion shouldnt be overlooked
— Nour Samaha (@Nour_Samaha) May 6, 2018
Christian competition heated in north Lebanon's Batroun
Chloe Domat has left Tripoli and headed down the coast to the predominately Christian town of Batroun, which is witnessing a fierce contest between some of Lebanon’s most prominent Christian politicians.
Batroun, along with Bcharre, Zghourta and Koura, make up the North 3 electoral district, where three major lists are competing: the FPM vs the LF and Kataeb vs the Marada Movement and independent politician Boutros Harb. Each list has a heavyweight politician behind it who not-so-secretly hopes to become president one day.
An FPM-supporter's car is covered in the party's signature orange and bears a picture of Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil in Batroun, north Lebanon, 6 May, 2018. (Chloe Domat/MEE)
All eyes are on Gebran Bassil, President Aoun’s son-in-law, foreign minister and president of the FPM. Bassil has previously failed to gain a seat in parliament, and is desperate not to repeat the trick this time around. Things seemed to be going in his favour in Batroun, where the participation rate stood a little above 50 per cent at 6 pm.
"I voted for him because he is a heavy worker and I am sure he will improve a lot of things in Batroun," Dany, a 40-year-old supporter of the FPM, told MEE.
An image of the Free Patriotic Movement's Gebran Bassil looks down on Lebanese Forces supporters in Batroun, 6 May, 2018. (Chloe Domat/MEE)
Some voters believe the new electoral law was designed to make him win.
"It’s impossible for him to lose with the proportional system and that is unfair. I voted for the Lebanese Forces, my family always supported them, but this time I don’t think we can win," said Dana, a 22-year old-waitress from a village nearby.
Scandalous events reported across Lebanon
An election in Lebanon wouldn't be an election without some elements of scandal.
As mentioned before, things in a polling station in Choueifat got heated, to say the least, with voilence breaking out and a polling box being smashed. A short video of the scene can be seen here:
— AlJadeed فنّ (@aljadeedfan) May 6, 2018
Meanwhile, another video has emerged from north Lebanon which appears to show Future Movement supporters handing out cash in order to encourage people to vote for the party. As reported earlier, Chloe Domat spoke to people in the northern city of Tripoli who predicted such behaviour. The video in question can be seen here:
— AlJadeed فنّ (@aljadeedfan) May 6, 2018
Elsewhere, Myriam Skaff, who leads the Popular Bloc, accused the Lebanese Forces of systematically targeting and physically assaulting her supporters in the Beqaa Valley city of Zahle.
In a news conference, Skaff accused the Lebanese Forces of reverting to its civil war-era practices, when the group operated as a brutal right-wing militia.
She said she had been submitting complaints to the state all day long, but security forces did not respond.
"We had hoped for this day to pass in a civilised way, but unfortunately we have seen some unacceptable things," she fumed.
The Lebanese Forces dismissed Skaff's accusations, saying that its own members had been hospitalised after being assaulted by supporters of the Popular Bloc.
— Marina Chamma - مارينا شمّا (@eyeontheeast) May 6, 2018
Voting has ended across Lebanon, except for those still queueing in polling stations, as assured by President Michel Aoun.
The interior ministry has not offered any nationwide information on voter turnout since 2 pm Beirut time. It wasn't looking good at the time.
Kollouna Watani candidate rejects deadline extension
In east Beirut, Kollouna Watani candidate in Gilbert Doumit told Ali Harb that he rejected the proposal to extend voting time because of low turnout, likening the idea to renewing the mandate of the political establishment.
"It's true that turnout is low. But in this low turnout, we are very close to them," the civil society candidate told MEE. "There's high participation from our end. That's why they want to extend two hours for themselves."
Kollouna Watani candidate Gilbert Doumit in east Beirut, 6 May, 2018. (Ali Harb/MEE)
Indeed, in a Gibran Tueni high school, which is serving as a polling station, campaigners were more numerous than voters.
Doumit said "our lives" are at stake tonight.
"We are going through the worst time economically, politically, socially, democratically. We cannot repeat four more years like the years that have passed, no matter what happened," he said.
Doumit spoke of massive organisational lapses on election day.
Aoun: Lebanese within polling stations can vote beyond 7pm
Lebanese President Michel Aoun has announced that voting will be extended beyond 7pm for those already at polling stations. Turnout is low, and that is clearly worrying Lebanon's political class.
Independent candidates should be concerned as well, as in many districts their success depends on mobilising voters to reach the thresholds of support needed to be eligible for seats. For more information about Lebanon's confusing, revamped and Byzantine electoral law, read more here...
If–IF–voter turnout is super low (considerably lower than the 50% of 2009) that could throw a bit of uncertainty into the outcome. Most models seem to be roughly based on 2009 turnout or slightly higher. If people don't show up, the question is who stayed home? #LebanonElections
— Benjamin Redd (@benredd) May 6, 2018
40min to go until polls close. #Lebanon's interior ministry has not issued new voter turnout since 2:00pm, when it was at just ~24%. @General_Aoun callsl on voters to head to polls: "If you are there, then of course the time will be extended so you can all vote."
— Maya Gebeily (@GebeilyM) May 6, 2018
Our ministry of interior didn't even bother to provide centers with enough voting boxes. Once again, Machnouk proves his incompetence in managing the simplest of details. #LebanonElections2018
— Ahmad Hamdan (@ahmad_m_hamdan) May 6, 2018
Politicians calling to extend voting hours. Todate I have observed few elections in Arab region. This means 2 things : low voter turnout + higher potential for voter fraud #LebaneseElections2018
— Randa Slim (@rmslim) May 6, 2018
Lebanon's new voting system
Lebanon has introduced a new proportional representation system for its parliamentary elections.
This move could open the door for smaller parties to make it into parliament.
While some have praised the move, the new election procedure consists of several legal stipulations, including the preferential vote and sectarian allocations, which make it the most complicated in the country's history.
Civil society voters remain discreet in Tripoli
Chloe Domat in Tripoli reports that two civil society lists are facing off against the big four Sunni leaders’ lists in northern Lebanon.
Unlike their competitors, they don’t have the means to pay bribes or even put up posters, but they firmly believe there needs to be a change.
"I am about to go abroad to find a job, but I still have a little bit of hope for this country, some hope that change can be real," Samir, a 22-year-old student who supports Kollouna Watani, a civil society coalition who presented lists in nine of Lebanon’s 15 electoral districts, told MEE.
A Kollouna Watani supporter is seen in Tripoli, north Lebanon, 6 May, 2018. (Chloe Domat/MEE)
Samir and the other supporters of civil society lists want to remain discreet. In one polling station, a woman who wished to remain anonymous told MEE that she agreed to be a delegate for one of the big candidates, who offered her $200 - but she actually voted for the civil society candidates.
"There needs to be some change. The same politicians and their sons have been mocking us for tens of years, what good did they bring? We need new faces," she said.
Read more about how civil society groups are attempting to challenge the status quo politics of Lebanon.
Polls may be extended, Hezbollah official says
With voter turnout struggling, Hezbollah's deputy head Naim Qassem said his party is in contact with the interior ministry over the possibility of extending the voting deadline beyond 7pm.
Hezbollah's number two was speaking in Beirut's Zoqaq al-Blat as he cast his vote.
— Habib Battah (@habib_b) May 6, 2018
In other news, MEE's Ali Harb has noted the amount of waste left by campaigners across Beirut.
Lebanon is suffering under a severe trash crisis, which spiralled into large, violent protests in 2015. All parties, particularly civil society ones, have promised to tackle the country's inability to deal with its own waste.
— Ali Harb (@Harbpeace) May 6, 2018
Hezbollah supporters reportedly threaten civil society candidate
A civil society candidate in south Lebanon's Bint Jbeil was threatened by supporters of Hezbollah and its Shia ally the Amal Movement, Lebanese news website Al-Modon has reported.
Lina Hmayed, who is running on the Kollouna Watani slate, was reportedly unable to leave the precinct for several hours after casting her ballot. The list's observers were also kicked out of the polling station.
A Hezbollah campaigner in Ghobeiri, south Beirut, told MEE that the group respects democracy and never targets or intimidates opposing candidates.
"Everything is going smoothly," the campaigner, who identified himself as Abu Hadi, said.
Late last month, anti-Hezbollah candidate Ali Amin was attacked by the party's supporters in his southern hometown of Shaqra.
Hezbollah and Amal supporters are seen in south Beirut's Ghobeiri neighbourhood, 6 May, 2018. (Ali Harb/MEE)
Hezbollah has framed the incident as a heated argument, telling Lebanese media outlets that it is not responsible for the behaviour of the individuals involved.
In Ghobeiri, a Hezbollah stronghold, the streets were almost vacant on Sunday. Most residents in the area are originally from the south or the Beqaa Valley. It appeared that most people in the area had gone to their villages to vote.
"We will elect whoever serves the people best," Zeinab Karma, a voter in Ghobeiri, told MEE.
Meanwhile, reports are emerging that things have got a bit heated in Choueifat, just south of Beirut
Fight in Chouefat, with men breaking open a ballot box, turning a table, and attacking each other and the polling staff. #2018election
— Anthony Elghossain (@aelghossain) May 6, 2018
GRAPHIC: Electoral map of Lebanon
Electoral map of Lebanon (MEE/Graphics)
Tripoli: 'People will vote for whoever pays the most'
Tripoli is home to some of the country’s poorest people. Once boasting a vast infrastructure network, including an airport, a port, a train station and an oil refinery, today only the port is still in service.
The most deprived districts are the Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbeneh neighbourhoods. People there told MEE they believe the unemployment rate to be around 80 per cent.
"I don’t want to beg for money from politicians anymore, I want to be represented by someone who will really boost economic activity here and create jobs. But for now that is not an option," said Ali, a 37 -year-old from Jabal Mohsen who will vote for the Future Movement list.
A poster of Prime Minister Saad Hariri covers the bonnet of a car in Tripoli, 6 May, 2018. (Chloe Domat/MEE)
"Honestly, people will vote for whoever pays the most. This is how you think when you are poor and you can’t feed your children. What else can we do? Take a boat to Europe?” asked Sleiman, sitting next to him.
"Personally, I like the ideas of civil society candidates, but I met with someone from the Future Movement and he told me that if I put up posters for his list and open a little bureau on the day of the elections, he would find a job for me. He runs a big hospital nearby and has helped me in the past so I believe him. What other choice do I have?" he said.
In the polling stations of Jabal Mohsen the participation rate was around 20 per cent at 1pm. Delegates from the parties inside the bureaus believe that people will rush to vote later in the afternoon, when bribe money comes.
Low voter turnout across Lebanon
According to the interior ministry, voter turnout is around 24.47 per cent with just a few hours of voting left to go. Polls are set to close at 7pm Beirut time.
In 2009, voter turnout stood at just under 54 per cent, so as things stand this time around far less Lebanese are expected to take part compared to nine years ago.
voter turnout as of 12 pm.
this is really low pic.twitter.com/hIIDluEY50
— zeead yaghi (@7_eead) May 6, 2018
This could be especially damaging for Hariri's chances, for whom mobilising support is of the upmost importance if he is to limit his bloc's losses in parliament.
Challengers like Rifi, wavering Saudi support, financial difficulties and a number of compromises with traditional foes the FPM and Hezbollah have chipped away at Hariri's support. Read more here...
Tripoli: Syrian crisis and Saudi influence
Unsurprisingly for a city just 30 minutes from the Syrian border, Tripoli has been greatly affected by the war next door. The conflict has at times spilled into open clashes between residents of the majority-Sunni neighbourhood Bab al-Tabbeneh and those of Jabal Mohsen, who share Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite sect.
Happily, Tripoli has been stable for some time now, and after a spate of battles and bombings in the early years of the war the city has largely settled back into normal life. Yet for many Sunnis of Lebanon’s second city, Hezbollah’s involvement in the war on behalf of Assad’s government has been a subject of much resentment.
In 2016, Ashraf Rifi emerged as a central figure in Tripolitan politics after resigning as justice minister in a protest against Hezbollah, subsequently doing well in 2016’s municipal elections by portraying himself as the one who would restore Tripoli’s strength and Sunni dignity in the face of the Shia party.
"He is a man of justice, someone who will protect the Lebanese state," Badr Eid, a candidate on Rifi’s list, told MEE while he was voting in Jabal Mohsen.
Badr Eid, a candidate on Ashraf Rifi's list, casts his vote in Tripoli's Jabal Mohsen. (Chloe Domat/MEE)
Rifi’s affiliation with Saudi Arabia is a secret to no one. In the centre of Tripoli, gigantic billboards show him posing with Saudi officials.
"We have to stand with Saudi Arabia to face Hezbollah," said Hajj Sharafeddine, who is responsible for one of Rifi’s offices. "They are not yet in Tripoli but they control the state."
Ashraf Rifi supporters pose in front of the former justice minister's image in Tripoli, north Lebanon. (Chloe Domat/MEE)
Saad's selfies gain traction in Al-Tariq al-Jdideh
In an attempt to attract younger voters, Prime Minister Saad Hariri has used selfies as a campaign tactic.
Besides regularly posing for selfies with supporters, last week he promised a crowd of woman he would take photos with all 6,000 of them if he wins in the elections.
The message has clearly registered with voters. In Beirut's Al-Tariq al-Jdideh neighbourhood, supporters are blasting a song that goes: "We will take a selfie with you and pray to God to back you."
Lebanese pose after voting in Beirut's Al-Tariq al-Jdideh neighbourhood, 6 May, 2018. (Ali Harb/MEE)
A group of Future Movement volunteers cheerfully told MEE that they will be taking selfies with the prime minister while celebrating the results tonight.
"They all want to fight Sheikh Saad," Hariri supporter Nader Tabara said of the prime minister's competitors. "But they won't get anywhere. He's the only leader of Sunnis."
Lebanon's leaders cast their vote
Lebanese Prime Minister and parliamentary candidate Saad Hariri shows his ink stained finger (Reuters)
Lebanese Parliament Speaker and candidate for parliamentary election Nabih Berri casts his vote at a polling station during the parliamentary election in Tibnin (Reuters)
Lebanese President Michel Aoun casts his ballot during parliamentary elections, in Beirut, Lebanon (Reuters)
Civil society supporters complain door open to cheating
In Christian east Beirut, the streets are significantly less crowded than usual. Residents who hail from Mount Lebanon and the north have had to head to their home villages to participate in the elections.
At one precinct in Ashrafieh, observers from Kollouna Watani list of independents were complaining that they were not given the necessary permits to enter the polling station. They said their absence opens the door to cheating against their candidates.
Lebanese vote in Beirut, 6 May, 2018. (Ali Harb/MEE)
"We are sick and tired and disgusted," Diana Abu Slaiman, a volunteer with Kollouna Watani told MEE. "We are demanding change for our children."
Independents hailing from Lebanese civil society are desperate to make an impact in these elections, after Beirut Madinati's near miss in 2016's municipal elections. Read more here...
Disabled Lebanese face issues voting
Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk, who is overseeing the elections, has acknowledged the lack of adequate accommodation for physically disabled voters. Machnouk blamed a group of ministry employees who were tasked with addressing the issue while preparing for the elections.
He said he has reprimanded those workers for their failure.
"I admit that there was a shortcoming," he said at a news conference, adding that disabled Lebanese should have been able to practice their right to vote like all other citizens.
A crowded polling station in west Beirut, 6 May, 2018. (Ali Harb/MEE)
Many polling stations are in buildings' higher floors, with no elevators or wheelchair access.
#Lebanon: Voting process in #Beirut II difficult for disabled/ senior members of the electorate. @DailyStarLeb saw more than a dozen people struggle up and down 3 story polling center. Interior Min. @NohadMachnouk apologized for this again Sunday.
Vid shared with TDS by voter pic.twitter.com/m3JTHMd126
— Timour Azhari (@timourazhari) May 6, 2018
'We want to change all 128 of them'
In some areas of west Beirut, Hariri's Future Movement appears to be the strongest force on the ground, but other factions are also visibly present, including campaigners for billionaire businessman Fouad Makhzoumi.
"Change" is a recurring theme with voters who have spoken to MEE.
Yehya Shouman, an aluminum trader, spoke of unseating the entire parliament.
"We want to change all 128 of them, and more if possible," he told MEE.
Politicians compete for space on Beirut walls. (Ali Harb/MEE)
New voting system, old voting traditions
Polling stations, mostly at public schools, are separated into different areas for genders and religious sects.
While in the past voters brought their own ballots (lists of names that can be handwritten), only the interior ministry is responsible for handling ballots in this election. Slates are marked by different colours with photos of candidates on each list.
Before leaving, voters are required to dip their thumbs in an ink container. In theory, the ink marks that they have voted, so they can't vote again. But it's more of a symbolic gesture.
A Lebanese man displays an inky thumb after voting in Beirut, 6 May, 2018. (Ali Harb/MEE)
The new process did not seem to faze voters, several of whom described the operation as good if not "excellent."
In the Shia-majority Msaitbeh neighbourhood of Beirut, Hezbollah seemed to dominate the vote. "We voted to renew our allegiance to the Resistance," a middle-aged woman told MEE's Ali Harb, referring to Hezbollah.
Rania Zakzouk, 27, said that as a first-time voter she finally feels like a fully functioning member of society. "It's important to participate and make our voices heard," she told MEE.
Tripoli - the battle of Sunni giants
Contrary to other parts of the country, no political group has a clear upper hand in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second-largest city.
Today, eight lists are competing for 11 seats. What is at stake? Lebanon’s Sunni leadership. Home to 350,000 people, Tripoli is the biggest Sunni city, and for politicians, notably those who seek to become prime minister (a seat reserved for Sunnis), it is essential to have support there.
Today, the battle will be fierce between the country’s four Sunni giants: Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who isn’t running personally but is represented through a Future Movement list; ex-premier Najib Mikati, running to renew his mandate; former justice minister Achraf Rifi, who emerged during the 2016 municipal elections; and Faisal Karame, who belongs to a famous political dynasty. Joining them in the race are two civil society lists and an Islamist one.
The streets are very calm compared with usual. There is a strong army presence, lots of military vehicles on patrol and soldiers on foot. The city is covered in posters for the elections. The big four are the most visible, but newcomers are also showing their faces.
Election posters of former justice minister Ashraf Rifi are seen next to an image of Saudi King Salman in Lebanon's Tripoli. (Chloe Domat/MEE)
Mohammad Nachar, owner of a glass factory in Tripoli, said he will vote for the Hariri-backed list.
"I will vote for him because for a long time he has been helping us. When we need to go to the hospital, to find a job, when someone is in jail ... Hariri found jobs for my family," he told Chloe Domat.
"For now people are not voting much, they are waiting to receive some money. After 4pm, people will receive calls offering money for votes and they will go. Not everyone is like this of course, but here in Tripoli there is a lot of poverty, so if someone offers $100 cash why not vote for him?"
Rival parties targeting Hezbollah
Analysts are expecting Hezbollah to come out top in this election. While its main rival, the future movement, are hoping to mitigate its losses.
In east Beirut's Ashrafieh neighbourhood, the Christian Kataeb party has targeted the Shia "Party of God" with this poster, its slogan, "Your vote is a legitimate weapon," is a clear dig at Hezbollah's military wing.
Success in these elections will cement Hezbollah's role as part of the Lebanese state, which could lead to further tensions with its enemy to the south, Israel. In March MEE travelled to the Lebanese-Israeli border to investigate the looming threat of war. Read more here...
A Kataeb Party election poster reads "Your vote is a legitimate weapon" in Beirut's Asrafieh neighbourhood, May 6, 2018. (Ali Harb/MEE)
First time voters
Middle East Eye's Ali Harb is in Beirut, where many are voting for the first time. Lebanese who became eligible to vote just after the last elections have now had to wait until they are 30 years old in order to choose their MPs.
— Ali Harb (@Harbpeace) May 6, 2018
Welcome to Lebanese election day!
Hello and welcome to Lebanese election day!
It’s been a long time coming – nine years in fact – thanks to MPs postponing parliamentary elections on three separate occasions, in 2013, 2014 and 2017, citing security issues and problems with the electoral law.
Well today the flames of the Syrian war have receded from Lebanon’s borders somewhat and a new, bafflingly complicated electoral law has been bashed out, meaning Lebanese can once again exercise their democratic right.
It has been a fraught campaign, with rhetoric and tension ratcheting up as polling day approached. On Friday, Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who leads the broadly Sunni, Saudi Arabia-aligned Future Movement, implored Beirutis not to vote for those accused of assassinating his father, Rafic Hariri.
By this, of course, he means Hezbollah, with which he is competing in the key Beirut 2 district, and which looks set to do very well in these elections alongside its allies.
This doesn’t spell well for Hariri, however, who has suffered a series of embarrassments, challenges and financial issues in recent years, most noticeably his seemingly forced resignation in Saudi Arabia that he quickly rowed back on once he was back on Lebanese soil.
Elsewhere, the two largest Christian parties, President Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement and the former militia leader Samir Geagea’s Lebanese Forces, have been facing off as well.
Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, who just so happens to be Aoun’s son-in-law and head of the FPM, spent Friday rejecting LF claims his party’s ministers were corrupt, accusing his rivals of being “electorally corrupt” instead.
But with the enforced media blackout that began at midnight on Friday the noise across the country receded, finally leaving Lebanese time on Saturday to reflect and think – who am I going to vote for?
They will be choosing among 583 candidates, who are split up across 77 electoral lists, to fill the Lebanese parliament’s 128 seats.
With the power to elect presidents, write laws and sign treaties, the parliament is a key institution. Who will emerge with the power to guide it?
Middle East Eye will be here all day as the Lebanese make this decision, with constant updates from the ground and the virtual world of social media.