Lebanese began voting on Sunday in their first general election for nine years, one that is unlikely to upend the country’s balance of power but is seen as important for economic stability.
Lebanon has mostly weathered the regional storm caused by seven years of war in neighboring Syria that has drawn in regional powers and unleashed a wave of refugees, but it has gone through several internal crises since the last election.
Television broadcasts showed voters queuing at polling stations across the tiny Mediterranean country early in the day to cast their ballots under new voting rules that still preserve the country’s sectarian power sharing system.
Voting is scheduled to last from 7 a.m. (0400 GMT) until 7 p.m. (1600 GMT), with unofficial results expected to start coming in overnight and a formal tally announced in the coming days.
Election law makes it illegal to publish forecasts of how the parties will perform. Whatever the result, another coalition government including most of the major parties, like that which has governed since 2016, is likely to be formed after the election, analysts have said.
Analysts are closely watching the performance of Sunni Muslim Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri’s Future Movement party and that of the Iran-backed, Shi’ite Hezbollah group and its allies.
The country has periodically been an arena for the intense regional competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia. However, in this election, Riyadh has pulled back from its previous support for Hariri, backing that helped Future in 2009.
Getting a new government in place quickly would reassure investors of Lebanon’s economic stability after donors pledged $11 billion in soft loans for a capital investment program last month, in return for fiscal and other reforms. The first follow-up meeting is expected within weeks.
Lebanon has one of the world’s highest debt-to-GDP ratios and the International Monetary Fund has warned its fiscal trajectory is unsustainable.
Ratings agencies had stressed the importance of Lebanon going ahead with the election after years of delays as a sign that the country was returning to normal after years of political difficulty.