Lebanon's first national elections in nine years were marked by a tepid turnout Sunday, reflecting voter frustration over endemic corruption and a stagnant economy. Politicians urged citizens to vote, and security forces struggled to maintain order as fights broke out in and around polling stations.
President Michel Aoun appealed to voters to cast ballots in a televised address an hour before polls closed. "If you want change, you should exercise your right" to vote, he said in a tweet.
The elections are the first since war broke out in neighboring Syria in 2011, sending more than a million refugees to Lebanon, a small country with an estimated population of 4.5 million. The war has divided the country, pitting parties supporting the Iran-sponsored Hezbollah's intervention in Syria to aid President Bashar Assad against Saudi-aligned groups opposed to it.
But low turnout — between 30% and 40% in Beirut precincts according to the country's National News Agency — revealed widespread voter apathy for the main political currents in the country and left open the possibility that outside candidates could win seats in Parliament.
"These leaders are destroying homes, not building them," said Ahmad Khashouq, 43, a private security guard in Beirut. Khashouq, from the town of Zahle in the country's Bekaa Valley, said he was not voting in the elections after feeling his vote was wasted in 2009, the last time elections were held.
More than 500 candidates are running for 128 seats in Lebanon's National Assembly.
Fistfights broke out in and around polling stations across the country, as rival partisans accused one another and election officials of ballot stuffing and illegal campaigning. In the Choueifat district, a crowd inside a polling station accused the site's supervisor of illegal voting practices and smashed a ballot box, spilling its contents across the floor. The army ordered the media to turn off their cameras.
In Zahle, politician Myriam Skaff blamed members of the right-wing Lebanese Forces party of beating up her supporters in polling stations.
The voting is unlikely to change the existing balance of power among the major political factions in Lebanon, but many hope new contenders from civil society groups can challenge the decades-old sectarian political system.
Sarah Brjawi, 33, said she was voting for Nouhad Yazbek, a woman running on a coalition list of political independents and activists in Beirut.
Brjawi, who was walking the streets of Beirut's Ras el Nabaa neighborhood with a clown troupe before voting, said she was perplexed by voters who said they supported their satirical act, poking fun at the country's endemic corruption and political stagnation, while saying they'd vote for establishment parties again.
"This country is really bipolar," Brjawi said.
The main race is between a pro-Western and Saudi-backed coalition headed by Prime Minister Saad Hariri and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah group, part of a region-wide power struggle that is tearing apart the Middle East.
"This shows Lebanon's democracy and the importance of democracy. This is a democratic wedding, and as we said from the start, congratulations to whoever wins tonight," said Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk, who is running on Hariri's list, after casting his ballot in Beirut.
As Hariri entered a public school in Beirut to vote, a woman in a wheelchair complained that polling stations were not equipped for disabled voters.
"We are human beings. It is not fair that we have to be carried like bags of potatoes," Silvana Lakkis said. The prime minister promised to address the problem in the next elections.
"When we see what is happening in countries around us and Lebanon is holding democratic elections, this shows that Lebanon is fine," Hariri said after waiting in line about 20 minutes to cast his ballot. "Order is nice," he quipped.
Hezbollah has sent thousands of fighters to Syria to back Assad's forces, a move that has been criticized by many Lebanese, mainly Sunni Muslims and Christians, who see the group as dragging the country into regional conflicts.
Leading Hezbollah legislator Ali Ammar defended his group's involvement in Syria, saying it protected Lebanon from the "evil powers" of the militant groups Islamic State and Al Qaeda.
In Hezbollah strongholds in southern Beirut, there was a steady flow of voters Sunday. Streets were festooned with candidates' posters and Hezbollah's signature yellow flags. Outside polling stations, Hezbollah supporters displayed a replica of the ballot on a big board and explained to voters which among the color-coded lists is theirs, and how they can vote for it. They wore yellow shirts bearing the slogan "We protect and build."
"We love the resistance," said Amira Sidani, an 85-year-old woman, after casting her ballot.
This year's vote takes into account a new election law that is based on proportional representation for the first time. 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.
That has cracked open the door for more outsiders, challenging political titans who have long ruled the country based on a sectarian and family patronage system.
At midday, after casting his ballot in southern Beirut, Aoun, the president, described the process as "successful." Wary of voters' apathy toward a vote unlikely to change much, he urged people to turn out in large numbers.
Mohammed Ali, 30, riding his scooter to the beach, said he's not voting because there are no choices. He says his family members will vote for whoever pays them, but he's not interested in the money.
The legislature'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 Muslim extremists have carried out several bombings.