Lebanon’s sectarian-based power-sharing politics mean no single alliance in the 128-seat parliament will enjoy a stable majority and analysts expect a fragile status quo to be preserved.
Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced on Monday that his Sunni-dominated political movement had lost a third of its seats in parliament following the country's first general election in nine years.
Lebanon on Sunday held its first parliamentary elections since 2009.
Hariri said his Future Movement won 21 seats in a parliamentary election on Sunday, down from the 33 he won the last time Lebanon elected a parliament in 2009.
The Iran-backed Shia group Hezbollah and its political allies looked set to win more than half the seats, according to preliminary results cited by politicians and Lebanese media.
Despite the losses, the result positions Hariri as the frontrunner to form the next government as the Sunni Muslim leader with the biggest bloc in parliament. Lebanon's prime minister has to be a Sunni under its sectarian power-sharing system.
"I extend my hand to every Lebanese to participate in shoring up securing political stability and to improve the lives of all the Lebanese," Hariri said in a televised address.
The international community should look at results of Lebanon's election in a "very positive way," he said.
The prime minister admitted that he had hoped for a stronger showing but said he remained happy with the result, which contrasts with the expected gains made by the rival camp led by the Hezbollah.
Lebanon is under pressure to prove to international donors and investors – who pledged more than $11 billion to Beirut last month – that it has a credible plan to reform its economy. Holding elections was seen as a key part of this.
The polls were also marked by a low turnout of 49.2 percent and the emergence of a civil society movement challenging Lebanon’s oligarchs that could clinch a pair of seats in parliament.
Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk announced the turnout figure at a news conference shortly after midnight and appeared to blame it on the new electoral law agreed last year.
“This is a new law and voters were not familiar with it, nor were the heads of polling stations,” he said. “Voting operations were very slow.”
As provisional estimates trickled in, some candidates’ supporters started celebrating in the streets after a polling operation marred only by a few violations but no major incident.
Lawmakers had extended their own mandate three times since 2009, ostensibly over security concerns linked to neighbouring Syria’s war and political divisions that led to long and crippling institutional crises.
A higher turnout had been expected after the long electoral hiatus but the vote was the first to follow a law passed in 2017 and the pre-printed ballots used on Sunday appeared to confuse some voters.
TRT World's Abubakr al Shamahi reports from Beirut.
Some voters also said that the sometimes absurd web of local electioneering alliances that saw some parties work together in one district and compete in others had put them off.
With an hour to go before polling stations closed, several senior political leaders appealed for an eleventh-hour rush to the ballot boxes but stopped short of extending polling hours.
Experts differ on who would benefit the most from a low turnout as alliance scenarios varied across the country’s 15 districts, whose size and sectarian fabric are all different.
Hezbollah’s own estimates a few hours after counting started sees the Shia movement coming out on top everywhere it fielded candidates, although only official results expected early on Monday will confirm the vote’s outcome.
With an increased number of seats in parliament, Hezbollah is expected with its allies to build a majority in its favour more easily on key issues such as the sensitive matter of the weapons it never laid down after the 1975-1990 civil war.
The leading voice calling for the Tehran-funded movement to give up an arsenal that has now grown to outgun the national army has been Prime Minister Saad Hariri.
Pollsters expect Hariri’s Sunni-dominated Future Movement to be among the biggest losers of the election but say he could keep his job.
The new contours of parliament could leave the Christian party of President Michel Aoun, who has allied with Hezbollah and Future, in the position of kingmaker.
“The biggest swing vote will be President Aoun’s group, which will move among the other blocs. Hezbollah will benefit from the lack of a broad coalition against it,” political analyst Imad Salamey said.
'Made hope possible'
Hezbollah, which was created in the 1980s to fight against Israel and currently battles in Syria alongside regime forces, is listed as a terror organisation by the United States.
Members of the powerful Shia group were suspected in the 2005 assassination of Hariri’s father Rafiq, himself a former and charismatic prime minister.
Lebanon has often been a scene where the rivalry between the region’s two heavyweights has played out, but their political clients in this election seemed content to maintain the status quo.
Despite the disappointing turnout among an electorate that included around 800,000 people who were too young to vote in the previous general polls, the new electoral law that allows smaller parties to run, helped a civil society list break into parliament.
Two women, television journalist Paula Yacoubian and author Joumana Haddad, looked poised to secure a seat from which they have pledged to challenge political dynasties they condemn as corrupt.
Alexandre Salha, a 30-year volunteer with the “Kulluna Watani” civil society list, gathered with other supporters in a Beirut cafe after the vote and said the most important thing was to get a foot in the door.
“We look forward to 2022 and we really believe that change has started. If we get one or two today, hopefully we’ll have 10 in four years. We made hope possible.” he said.