BEIRUT: Lebanon is holding its breath as 3 million Lebanese prepare to head to polling stations from 7 a.m. on Sunday to elect 128 MPs after a fiercely contested and divisive electoral battle.
The elections are taking place amid sectarian incitement and blatant bribery in all regions by various political forces, the pace of which has increased in recent weeks.
On Saturday, the online armies of the competing forces worked to spread rumors on social media about some candidates withdrawing. It remains to be seen whether the sharp polarization will succeed in encouraging voters to head to the polls.
The elections will be under an Arab, European, US and Russian microscope as well. A five-member Russian delegation is observing the Lebanese poll for the first time. About 80 European observers will also be present in all constituencies. Around 18 Arab observers within the Arab League delegation and about 40 from the American National Standards Institute are also participating.
However, the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections has the largest share of observers: A total of 1,000 will cover 16 percent of the polling stations, in addition to several itinerant observers.
Ballot boxes were delivered to all governorates on Saturday morning in preparation for their distribution to the polling stations. Meanwhile, security forces were deployed to all regions.
About 14,000 polling stations cover voters inside Lebanon and expats overseas, who voted a week ago.
These elections are crucial because, for the first time, civil society movements are competing against the conventional political forces accused of failing to administer the country for decades, in the hopes of saving Lebanon from the deepening financial and economic crises.
Regional and international forces are looking to see what the elections will produce in terms of the balance of power, as the country struggles to stay afloat.
Before the electoral battle, the forces of change had intended to form only 15 electoral lists. However, they ended up with 60 lists out of 103 competing lists.
Following the expat voting, some lists affiliated with the forces of change withdrew in favor of similar lists in Akkar, northern Lebanon and the western Bekaa-Rashaya in order to secure victory for certain candidates.
Public affairs expert Zina Helou told Arab News: “This step may be because these candidates have realized their weakness and they may have been subjected to some pressure, or the voters may have let them down, or they may have been paid off to withdraw from the competition.
“In any case, they either do not have the slightest responsibility toward their country or have been bribed. It is known that there is no value for withdrawals after the deadline, as all electoral lists will be displayed in the polling stations.
“I think that those in charge of the electoral law should later impose a fine on everyone who withdraws after the deadline. The elections were an opportunity that these forces of change have unfortunately missed out on.”
She added: “I believe the voter turnout on Sunday may not exceed 40 percent, which is very low, and I may be wrong. But given the campaigns and alliances, this round of elections is similar to the one that took place in 2005 after the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri and the subsequent political division between rival forces. Despite all the polarization at the time, the voter turnout did not exceed 40 percent.”
Helou said: “Normally after crises and revolutions, voting rates are low, and this is what we have witnessed in several Arab countries. In addition, there is a logistical obstacle in Lebanon in terms of the voters’ ability to physically go to polling stations. As a result, many will give up their right to vote.”
She added: “The speech by President Michel Aoun, even if it constituted a violation of the electoral code of conduct, may contribute to raising or lowering the percentage of voter turnout on Sunday.”
Helou said: “The mood of the Lebanese voter was fragile ahead of the elections and could be affected either negatively or positively by any speech.
“The expat vote may create enthusiasm among local voters, but we have to wait to find out. Either way, the forces of change must carry on with their mission after the elections.”
The new parliament will have to elect a new speaker amid opposition to the re-election of Nabih Berri, and also elect the next Lebanese president in October.
Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rahi addressed Lebanese voters and candidates on Saturday, saying: “Change remains dependent on the density and quality of voting, respect for democracy and the constitution, and the formation of a new government quickly so as not to disrupt other elections.”
He added: “Whatever the results, the formation of the next government, implementing reforms and adopting a system of active neutrality remain the pivotal solution that guarantees Lebanon’s existence, and preserves its independence, stability, and unity.”