Beirut, Lebanon – Voters in Lebanon crowded polling stations without electricity and a little stationery, but what the polling stations lack in amenities was compensated for by a sense of hope.
“I hope there will be some change for my children,” Zeina Tabash said after voting in Beirut on Sunday.
I do not want to leave Lebanon. I want change, Tabash said, explaining how she currently works and how she chose to vote for new candidates who are not from the country’s traditional parties.
Voting closed on Sunday evening in a parliamentary election, the first since Lebanon’s economy began to deteriorate in late 2019, prompting hundreds of thousands to protest in the streets against the country’s rulers.
The Home Office estimated the voter turnout – calculated up to 30 minutes before polling stations closed – at 37.52 percent, well below 49 percent in 2018.
Interior Minister Bassam al-Mawlawi indicated that final voter numbers are not expected to increase significantly.
“I don’t know if this is because of the citizens’ choice, or if it serves the political orientation of those who called for a boycott,” Mawlawi told the Lebanese channel MTV.
He added that vote counting is expected to be “a bit complicated” and may take some time.
For those who participated in the 2019 protests, the new elections were seen as an opportunity to uproot the Lebanese political establishment and expel corrupt sectarian parties and cronies.
But voters were running their forecasts earlier on Sunday.
Salima Abu Maree said she was less optimistic about what the elections could achieve, but she still chose to vote.
“We hope the people we vote for will not forget their morals if they are elected,” she said.
“I myself am not an optimist, but it is our civic duty to go out and vote.”
Approximately 3.9 million eligible voters had the opportunity to choose their preferred representatives from among 718 candidates spread over 103 lists in 15 districts and 27 sub-constituencies – up from 597 candidates and 77 lists in the 2018 elections.
In a speech on Saturday, President Michel Aoun called on citizens to vote in large numbers.
“The ballot box revolution is the most honest,” Aoun said.
A gun aimed at our backs.
Lebanon’s largest Sunni party, the Saudi-backed Future Movement, did not participate in the elections.
The party’s leader, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, stepped down from politics earlier this year, criticizing the growing power and influence of the Iran-backed Shiite movement Hezbollah.
Hariri left a large political gap in key constituencies, and analysts told Al Jazeera that Hezbollah allies may try to take advantage of his absence.
The Future Movement currently holds two-thirds of allotted Sunni seats in parliament, and a wide range of political groups and candidates have swept Sunni districts in an effort to fill the vacuum in Tripoli, Sidon and Beirut’s second district.
Many Hariri supporters have called for a boycott of the elections, and in Beirut’s Tariq Jdeideh neighborhood – where Hariri’s pictures still hang from buildings – residents of the Berjawi neighborhood have blocked a main road with an inflatable pool and hammock.
Residents said they did not vote because the Future Movement was not running.
“We support Hariri’s decision and we are committed to it,” Mohamed Berjawi Abdel Aziz told Al Jazeera.
“Look around you; today is just a normal day for us.
Abdel Aziz dismissed fears that Hezbollah would exploit the political gap left by Hariri after he stepped down, saying that the Iran-backed party has always run matters in Lebanon using its armed forces as leverage.
“There has always been an obstacle called Hezbollah,” he said.
“Let us not deceive ourselves any longer; there was always a gun pointed at our backs.”
Turnout and threats
The European Union deployed 170 monitors across the country to monitor the measures on Sunday.
Election observers from the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections, a non-governmental organization, told Al Jazeera that supporters of Hezbollah and the Amal movement in several southern and eastern towns threatened and expelled them from polling stations. One screen has been attacked.
In the eastern town of Zahle and the southern town of Kafr Melki, quarrels broke out between members of Hezbollah, the Amal Movement and the Christian Lebanese Forces. Several of them were wounded, according to eyewitnesses.
Voter turnout was expected to be higher this year after an increase in the Lebanese diaspora vote last week.
About 142,000 out of 244,442 registered foreign voters went to the polls last week on May 6 and 8 in 48 countries, with a turnout of 63.05 percent, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
This was more than triple the diaspora’s participation in the previous Lebanese elections in 2018, when voter turnout was just under 50 percent.
This year’s elections also include several anti-establishment candidates representing new political groups and movements. In 2018, one non-institutional female candidate, former journalist Paula Yacoubian, won a seat in Beirut.
While analysts expect anti-establishment candidates to win additional seats in this election, they say the balance of power will ultimately remain the same: Hezbollah and its allies will maintain a majority in parliament.