Grassroots campaign tackles entrenched parties in Lebanon poll



BEIRUT, LEBANON, Layal Abou Rahal- Lebanese voters headed to the polls for the first time in six years Sunday for municipal elections including in Beirut, where a new grassroots campaign is taking on entrenched parties.
It is the first election of any kind in Lebanon since the last municipal polls in 2010, in a country with a deeply divided political scene that has not had a president for the past two years nor voted for a parliament since 2009.



Voters trickled to polling stations in Beirut and in two provinces of the Bekaa region in the first stage of an election to last until May 29 in five other provinces.
By the time polls closed at 1600 GMT turnout in the capital was weak, Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk said.
He told reporters that turnout in Beirut was estimated at around 20 percent while it was much higher in the Bekaa region, dominated by the Shiite movement Hezbollah, at around 50 percent.
In Beirut, an unlikely alliance of citizens for the first time challenged traditional politicians like ex-prime minister Saad Hariri, whose Future Movement usually dominates elections in the capital.
Beirut Madinati, Arabic for "Beirut is my city", emerged after civil society gained momentum in protests last summer over a political crisis that saw trash pile up on streets.
Hariri claimed success for his list in the capital late Sunday, before official results were tallied.
"The results are favourable for the Beirut list," he told a crowd of supporters.
But Irahim Mneimneh, head of Beirut Madinati did not concede, saying his campaign "had very good results".
- 'Fed up' with corruption -
Coming out of a polling station in Beirut, a 43-year-old voter who gave his name only as Elie was enthusiastic the civil-society backed group would gain a foothold.
"Even if just one candidate from Beirut Madinati gets in, it'll be a victory for civil society," said the employee of a money transfer company, who in 2010 had voted for the Hariri-backed list.
"We're fed up with this corrupt political class," he said.
The 24-candidate list of independents includes teachers, fishermen and artists such as famed actress and film director Nadine Labaki.
But 40-year-old Mariam said she had voted for the Hariri list because "it represents the people of Beirut".
Since the end of the Lebanese civil war in 1990, lists in the municipal polls every six years have traditionally been pulled together by a handful of parties often formed along sectarian lines and led by former warlords.
Beirut Madinati faces the formidable challenge of breaking through that established political class in a bid to win all 24 seats in the capital.
Only about 470,000 voters are registered in Beirut, a metropolis home to four times more people.
The country's electoral law stipulates that Lebanese are automatically registered to vote in the birthplace of their ancestors.
Lebanon has been without a president since May 2014, when the mandate of Michel Sleiman expired, because the country's Christians, Sunni and Shiite Muslims and Druze cannot agree on a candidate.
- 'Uncontested' Hezbollah lists -
The country's political scene is deeply divided, with the government split roughly between a bloc led by Hezbollah -- backed by Iran and Syria -- and another headed by Hariri -- supported by Saudi Arabia and the United States.
These rivals have joined forces against Beirut Madinati for the municipal polls in Beirut, however.
On Sunday posters of the traditional candidates were plastered on the city's walls, while Beirut Madinati supporters took to social media to convince friends and acquaintances registered in Beirut to vote.
Lebanese suffer from poor infrastructure and public services, as well as water and power shortages.
Beirut Madinati's programme to attract frustrated voters includes plans to improve public transport in the traffic-clogged city, introduce more green spaces, make housing affordable and implement a lasting waste management solution.
Hezbollah is expected to win in the Bekaa region -- except in the town of Zahle, where a list of candidates from an influential family backed by Hariri is vying against another supported by traditional Christian parties.
In Beirut and the Bekaa region, another grassroots movement called Citizens in a State, led by former minister and economist Charbel Nahhas, is taking part in the polls.
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Monday, May 9th 2016
Layal Abou Rahal
           


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