Lebanese go the polls on Sunday in their first parliamentary election in nine years, well aware that their ballots will not alter the political map of the country or initiate essential reforms.
They were due to vote in 2013, but that election was postponed repeatedly due to long periods of political stasis when there was neither president nor government.
More than 3.6 million registered voters are eligible to choose among 583 candidates standing for 128 parliamentary seats on 77 lists in 15 districts where seats are allocated according to sect.
Nevertheless, campaigning has been vigorous and expensive. Lebanese vote in their familial urban quarters, towns and villages where they meet relatives, share a meal and gossip. Voting is both a cause for celebration and a means of expressing confidence in the future, particularly now that Lebanon is in the eye of a regional storm of violence and uncertainty.
There are several “firsts” in this election. Lebanese expatriates were allowed to vote in their countries of residence. During earlier polls those living abroad were encouraged to return to cast ballots, and were even given air tickets to do so by competing political factions.
Lebanese are voting under a new election law based on proportional representation rather than winner-takes-all. The system, adopted last June, has not, however, been applied on a national basis, says pollster Abdo Saad, who first proposed this model in 1997.
Instead of uniting the country, he says, the new law divides Lebanon into smaller units than in earlier elections. The object is to maintain the sectarian power-sharing balance within districts and regions, perpetuating the sectarian model imposed by France, the post-first World War mandatory power.
According to this model presidents are always Maronite Christians, prime ministers Sunni Muslims and parliamentary speakers Shia Muslims; parliament is divided equally between Christians and Muslims.
For the first time, large numbers of independents and civil society groups have put forward lists, demonstrating a yearning for change and reform. These include organisations promoting women’s rights, activists calling for an end to corruption, and opponents of sectarianism.
However, they have not joined forces and have no hope of breaking into the political elite that emerged over decades and represents families, clans and local, regional and international interests.
The law also mandates voters to select preferences, prompting fierce competition within lists, pitting veterans against each other, and leading several senior politicians to drop out of the race.
This election ushers in new generations in the country's political dynasties. Among the youngsters are Taymour Jumblatt, son of Walid Jublatt and grandson of Druze leader Kamal Jumblatt; Tony Frangie, grandson of former president Suleiman Frangie; and Michelle Tueini, daughter of assassinated politician and newspaperman Gebran Tueini and granddaughter of Ghassan Tueini, founder of al-Nahar, Lebanon's most influential newspaper.
There are 86 women standing, a dramatic increase from the dozen who ran in 2009. Few if any are expected to win seats as they, like independents and civil society activists, face well financed professional politicians and businessmen who have spent lavishly on television time, campaign posters, billboards and campaign events.
While Lebanese do not expect a new deal from the new law, former environment minister Mohamed Mashnouk takes a positive view of the incoming parliament. "We have people who are 90 years old now. The dynamic will change."
He says, however, the new cabinet will “not change dramatically”, and argues there will be no effective opposition. “The cabinet will represent everybody.” Cohabitation between opposing factions has been practised for years.
Not for the first time this election has become hostage to regional and international politics. Fearing it could lose seats, Saudi Arabia has been vigorously supporting the Sunni-Christian grouping led by prime minister Saad Hariri, son of slain former premier Rafiq Hariri.
Encouraged by the US, its Western allies and Israel, the Saudis have poured money into the campaign with the aim of bolstering Hariri and weakening the Shia-Christian alliance led by the Hizbullah movement due to Hizbullah's ties to Shia Iran, Sunni Saudi Arabia's regional rival.
Politicians in the Hariri camp have portrayed the electoral battle as being between “Arabs” and “Persians”, ie Iranians. Although this tactic is unlikely to budge Hizbullah’s core supporters, the ploy is stirring anti-Shia sentiments among communities opposed to Hizbullah.
Iran has kept a low profile to avoid provoking the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel, which have been prosecuting a campaign to force Iran to retreat from its current heavy involvement in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
Pundits predict Hariri will emerge as prime minister as a counterweight to Hizbullah's chief Christian ally President Michel Aoun, while the mix of factions in the 2005 and 2009 parliaments could be repeated, with Hariri's bloc winning a majority and Hizbullah's bloc maintaining solid representation.