BEIRUT – Lebanon is holding its first parliament elections in nine years, with more than 500 candidates vying for 128 seats.
According to Lebanon's sectarian-based power sharing system, the legislature is equally divided between Muslims and Christians. Established political parties and politicians are expected to get the lion's share of seats, but a record number of women, civil society candidates and independents are running, hoping to bring new faces and a degree of change to the corruption-plagued and debt-ridden country.
Here's a look at the main political parties and key players:
The Future Movement of Prime Minister Saad Hariri was founded in the mid-1990s by his father, the late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated in a massive bombing in 2005. Hariri, a Sunni politician who also holds Saudi citizenship, currently heads the largest bloc in parliament. He is a critic of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah group, which is nevertheless part of his unity government. Hariri's Future Movement is expected to lose some of its seats during Sunday's s elections due to a new electoral law that is likely to fragment the Sunni vote. Some of Hariri's supporters have also shifted their allegiance after the billionaire businessman, who also holds Saudi citizenship, laid off scores of employees in his development company because of Saudi spending cuts.
FREE PATRIOTIC MOVEMENT
The group founded by President Michel Aoun — a former anti-Syrian Christian opposition leader — has been a close ally of the Hezbollah militant group since the two political factions signed a memorandum of understanding in February 2006. FPM has the second largest bloc in parliament and has candidates running in different regions. The mostly Maronite Christian party enjoys wide support among many Shiites in Lebanon, who are likely to back the group in areas where they have presence. The FPM is now headed by Aoun's son-in-law, Foreign Minister Gibran Bassil, who is running for a seat.
The Shiite Muslim Hezbollah guerrilla group, backed by Iran and Syria, was founded in 1982 as a resistance movement to Israeli occupation of parts of Lebanon, and has since grown into Lebanon's most potent military and political force. The group runs an extensive network of charities, schools and clinics and enjoys strong support among Shiite Muslims and some Christians for its record of fighting Israel. Its decision to send its fighters to Syria to shore up President Bashar Assad's forces, however, is highly controversial, and may bring a degree of backlash from within the Shiite community. However, it is still expected come out as a winner in these elections, along with its allies. Hezbollah is expected to keep its 12 seats in parliament.
The Shiite political group was founded in the 1970s by Imam Moussa al-Sadr, who went missing in Libya in 1978. The group is a close ally of Hezbollah and is headed by Lebanon's powerful parliament speaker, Nabih Berri. The 80-year-old Berri has held the post for more than 25 years and runs virtually uncontested. Berri is an ally of the Syrian government and is running in a coalition with the militant Hezbollah and other Syrian-backed parties.
PROGRESSIVE SOCIALIST PARTY
The main political party of Lebanon's Druze community, which makes up about 5 percent of the total population of Lebanon. The group is headed by leading Druze politician Walid Jumblatt, who is stepping aside in Sunday's election and is backing his eldest son, Taymour, for the seat. The group has several candidates running in coalition with Hariri's Future Movement, the right-wing Christian Lebanese Forces and others.
The right-wing Christian party is the main Christian rival of President Michel Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement and has been one of the harshest critics of Hezbollah. Led by former Christian warlord Samir Geagea, who spent years in jail after the 1975-1990 civil war ended, the group is expected to win more than the eight seats it currently holds.
A record number of civil society activists, women and independents are running in these elections, hoping to ride a wave of popular discontent over Lebanon's myriad troubles, including endemic power cuts, a waste management crisis and soaring debt blamed on corrupt politicians. They face the almost impossible task of competing with sectarian warlords, established parties and wealthy politicians, but hope to at least make a dent in the system.