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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Lebanese voters uninspired by first election in a decade

'They’re tired of all the bull', says election observer

Two voters search for their names at a polling station in the northern Lebanese port city of Tripoli before voting on May 6, 2018 in Lebanon's first parliamentary election in nine years. Marwan Tahtah / AFP
Two voters search for their names at a polling station in the northern Lebanese port city of Tripoli before voting on May 6, 2018 in Lebanon's first parliamentary election in nine years. Marwan Tahtah / AFP

A late drive for votes from Lebanese politicians on Sunday in the first parliamentary elections for almost a decade appeared to mask what was initially interpreted as voter apathy rearing its head in a country long beset by corruption, political stalemate and economic stagnation.

A mid-afternoon turnout poll of 24 per cent across the country rose dramatically by 6pm local time after Lebanese officials took to social media and even television to appeal for the electorate to vote.

But the latest turnout count of 46.88 per cent of registered voters remains lower than the 54 per cent who cast their ballots in the last election in 2009, suggesting that even though the election has been postponed twice since then, voters are no more eager to participate in the country's democratic process.

Voters and observers at subdued polling stations across Beirut put forward a familiar list of reasons for the lower turnout. Foremost among them: disenfranchisement and a lack of faith in the electoral system to effect positive change.

"The people who told me they don't care are more than the people who said they want to vote", said Tala Turk, a 24-year-old project manager who was monitoring the elections at a polling station in the Beirut suburb of Bir Hassan.

Many of her friends lacked faith that voting could effect change on an entrenched status quo, she said: "They have the power to change things, but they don't believe it”.

Abeer Knio, another 24-year-old, said that the Lebanese had been “brainwashed” into believing change is impossible.

“We hope we will see change”, she said, listing many of the same issues that most Lebanese do when speaking about the country’s problems: failing infrastructure, economic woes and a lack of basic services.

“Look at the trash in the streets,” she said, gesturing to refuse outside the polling station, which now included empty lunch boxes that had been handed out by political parties.

Knio said legacy and tradition had become more important than electing qualified candidates.

"People feel they have to be supportive of our sect and we have to stick to our families' political views", Knio said.

The lower turnout was a problem that not even Lebanon’s most well-oiled political machines appeared to have surmounted.

At one polling station in Bourj Al Barajneh, 210 of 609 voters registered had cast their votes by mid-afternoon.

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Bourj Al Barajneh is part of Beirut’s southern suburbs, the main base of support for Hezbollah, the militia and political party renowned even outside of Lebanon for its organizing abilities.

The station was quiet enough that a half dozen election observers from different parties were able to sit down to share a cordial lunch.

Nadia Shaarawi, the manager of the polling station, laughed when they were asked who was ahead in the polls.

“We are”, said the observer representing Hezbollah.

“They’re better at getting their people to the polls”, an observer with one of the other parties agreed.

But Shaarawi, pointed out that young people had largely stayed away.

“The young people don’t want to vote,” she said. “I know from my nieces and nephews, they are not happy with any politicians”.

For many young Lebanese, leaving the country is search of work is a best-case scenario.

"There are no jobs", said Jalal Abu Khary, a 23-year-old TV and radio student. "I am in my second year at university and I believe that when I graduate I won't have a job".

"Other countries pay their students to study overseas and bring back experience," he said. "I would like to be able to do this".

As the closing of polls neared in predominantly Christian east Beirut, Michel Chakar was resigned to being disappointed.

“We’ve been calling people for the past two months”, said the volunteer from Kollouna Watani, an electoral alliance that has distinguished itself in Lebanon by refusing to identify with any of the country’s sects.

Kollouna Watani had also hoped to capitalize on an entirely new generation of voters, but as the day ended, Mr Chakar said he was hoping the party could pick up “four or five” seats in the 128-member parliament.

“We have to begin somewhere”, Mr Chakar said.

Inside a polling station around the corner, an observer from one of the political parties offered a frank opinion of what had happened.

“They’re tired of all the bull----!” he said.

None of the other six observers in the room disagreed with him. A couple nodded.