Lebanon’s polling stations yesterday opened for the first parliamentary elections in nine years, with people lining up early in the morning to take part in a vote that is being fiercely contested between rival groups backed by regional powers.
Thousands of army and police forces deployed near polling stations and on major intersections across the country to ensure security amid heightened tensions.
Electoral campaigns have been tense as each group has mobilized its supporters, with fistfights and shootings occurring in several areas in the past few weeks.
The main race is between a Western-backed coalition headed by Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah group.
The vote also reflects regional tensions between Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran, which back the rival groups.
“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 Lebanese Minister of the Interior Nouhad Machnouk, who is running on Hariri’s list, after casting his ballot in Beirut.
As Hariri entered a public school to vote, a woman in a wheelchair said that polling stations were not equipped for disabled people.
“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 having elections this shows that the situation in Lebanon is good,” Hariri said after waiting about 20 minutes to cast his ballot.
The vote is the first since Syria’s war broke out in 2011. Hezbollah has sent thousands of fighters to back Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, a move that has been criticized by many Lebanese, mainly Sunni Muslims and Christians, who see the group as pulling the country into regional conflicts.
Leading Hezbollah lawmaker Ali Ammar defended his group’s involvement in Syria, saying it protected Lebanon from the “evil powers” of the Islamic State group and al-Qaeda.
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 has driven more than a million Syrian refugees into Lebanon, straining the tiny country’s economy and infrastructure.
There are about 3.6 million eligible voters. About 586 candidates, including 86 women, are running for the 128-seat parliament, which is equally divided between Muslims and Christians.
Hezbollah and its allies are likely to add more seats, while Hariri is likely to lose several.
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