Lebanon holds local elections amid tight security

2016-05-08 19:18
Nadine Labaki casts her vote during the municipal elections in Beirut, Lebanon. (Hassan Ammar, AP)

Nadine Labaki casts her vote during the municipal elections in Beirut, Lebanon. (Hassan Ammar, AP)

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Beirut - Lebanese voted on Sunday in municipal elections in Beirut and the Bekaa Valley amid tight security and a low turnout in the capital that has recently seen the largest anti-government protests in years following a months-long trash crisis.

Security was tight in the country as authorities took strict measures to guarantee that the vote passes without trouble. Lebanon was hit by a wave of bombings in recent years that killed scores of people and Syria's civil war has spilled over in the past.

Sunday's vote is the first to be held in the country since 2010. The government has postponed parliamentary elections, citing security concerns linked to the conflict in neighbouring Syria. Lebanon has also been without a president since 2014, with the parliament failing to elect a leader amid political disagreements, and a paralysis among political rivals often related to their stance on the war in Syria.

There are 1.8 million voters registered for this round of voting. Three other rounds will take place over the coming weeks in other parts of the country.

In Beirut, residents are voting for the first time since an eight-month trash crisis ignited anti-government protests, with an outsider group of candidates challenging a political establishment widely seen as corrupt and incompetent.

Lebanon's powerful Hezbollah group is only backing neighbourhood mayors, but not municipal candidates, in Beirut. Hezbollah has a strong base in the country's south and the Bekaa Valley, and is fielding municipal candidates there.

But turnout was low in Beirut by the afternoon. The interior minister said turnout was at 13% in the capital. The highest turnout was in Baalbek, a Hezbollah-stronghold near the Syrian border, where 33% voted.

A day ahead of the elections, Lebanese army and police intensified patrols and deployed in front of polling stations.

Motorcycles were banned on the day of the vote in an apparent attempt to head off potential attacks or speedy getaways. And to avoid late night crowds, Beirut's famed nightclubs were ordered closed while bars and restaurants had to shut after midnight on Saturday.

In the eastern town of Arsal, a curfew was imposed on tens of thousands of Syrian refugees until the polling stations close.

Lebanon is home to more than a million registered Syrian refugees, the equivalent of a quarter the country's population of 4.5 million. Another half million unregistered Syrians live in the country.

"Their situation is not right. It is a dangerous thing. Hopefully, when the municipality is elected, they will find a solution for them and they don't stay in town here and return to their country," said voter Walid Saramani from Zahleh, a major town in the Bekaa valley.

Successfully organising the municipal elections will strengthen the argument that delaying other votes for security concerns is unnecessary.

"These [elections] prove that Lebanon's democracy is in good shape and we can hold elections," said Hariri, the son of late prime minister Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated by a massive bomb in Beirut in 2005.


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