Showered with rice, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri takes the stage on the last day of campaigning.
In a predominantly Sunni area of West Beirut, he is received more like a rock star than a politician. Young and old decked out in the blue of his party’s flag stream in from every street.
“Beirut! I love you!” Hariri bellows from the stage.
A celebrity for many on the Sunni street, the 48-year-old politician is seen as the man staving off Shia dominance in a country where Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shia group, has grown rapidly in power. His Mustaqbal, or Future, bloc is going head-to-head with Hezbollah’s political wing in a hard-fought election cycle.
Voters head to the polls Sunday in Lebanon’s first parliamentary elections in nearly a decade.
Miles away from Hariri’s West Beirut stronghold, hundreds covered in Hezbollah’s signature yellow flock to an open-air rally in the city of Baalbek.
A hailstorm surprises supporters. The shouts of “Labayka ya Nasrallah (for you, Nasrallah),” a reference to Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, rise in crescendo with the downpour of hail. People eventually take cover under plastic chairs, but the chants are unrelenting.
Outside the power bases of Hariri and Hezbollah are a growing contingent of disenchanted voters. Nearly every Lebanese that CNN spoke to said they have little hope in politicians’ ability to tackle the country’s litany of economic and security woes.
“Nothing here is going to change, and I simply can’t be bothered to make the trip to my hometown to vote,” says a taxi driver from Hezbollah’s stronghold in South Lebanon.
“I’m voting for the new candidates. I don’t know if they’re better, but they seem to be our last hope,” says shop owner Abu Elie.
Some politicians, including one minister, said these voters will make it more difficult for parties to do business as usual.
Stability in a deeply divided country
A hero in his sectarian strongholds, Hariri is an altogether different figure on the national stage. Since becoming Prime Minister for a second time in 2016, he’s managed to bring relative stability to a deeply divided country.
“What I did two years ago is we reunited the country around a political consensus,” Hariri told CNN after a meeting with Sunni religious scholars Friday in Beirut.
This consensus involved forming a government that included ministers from Iranian-backed Hezbollah.
It was a marriage of convenience that didn’t please everyone, particularly Hariri’s Saudi backers who have publicly criticized the move, but Lebanon has been spared a significant spillover of the violence from neighboring Syria. For a country with vivid memories of its own 15-year civil war, that’s no small achievement.
“I promote moderation. I promote speaking to everyone in the Arab world, in the rest of the world,” he added, calling this election “historic.”
The Saudi-backed Hariri and Iran-backed Hezbollah are vying for control of a parliamentary majority through highly complex coalitions with allies.
Both groups are dealing with shortages in campaign finances. Hezbollah’s resources reportedly have been all but drained by the war in Syria, where they have fought hard to keep Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power, and Hariri’s camp said it’s received little financing from its usual patrons in the Gulf countries.
Unable to pay for extravagant marketing campaigns, both groups have rolled up their sleeves and campaigned aggressively. Hezbollah’s Nasrallah has given televised speeches on a nearly weekly basis. Hariri’s exhausting four-hour convoy tours have made rounds across the country over the last month.
Still, many voters seem unimpressed, pointing to rising debt, decaying infrastructure, poor public services and perennially high unemployment.
Pressure from young voters
Sunday is Lebanon’s first election in nine years after Parliament renewed its mandate several times, citing a string of political crises for doing so.
The repeated delays may have inadvertently brought on a challenge to Lebanon’s politicians. Anyone under 30 is voting for the first time, bringing 800,000 new voters to a country of 4 million, according to Lebanese Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk, who predicts change is afoot.
“I think (young voters) will make a real pressure on the political life, not only in the elections,” Machnouk, a close political ally of Hariri’s, said in an interview with CNN.
“Most of them are part of the civil society, which is becoming more and more of an influence in the political life of all the parties. That will make a difference in the governance of Lebanon.”
Civil society groups have put forward more than 70 candidates – the largest number of independent candidates in any Lebanese election. They say they are banking on young voters to choose public servants of a different kind.
A new election law has opened the door to more independent candidates, many eager to shake off Lebanon’s legacy of sectarian politics. The largest coalition of civil society groups and new political parties is Kollouna Watani, which has campaigned on improved human rights – notably for women and members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community – as well as programs to alleviate economic woes.
The candidates say they lack the resources to run flashy campaigns – many also report being asked for thousands of US dollars in exchange for an interview on local TV stations. Doing away with traditional media, they have taken to social networks, and to the streets, to rally support.
In quiet mountain towns and on Beirut’s congested streets, the candidates have been driving for miles in campaign buses and distributing leaflets to voters.
Even with the odds stacked against them, the little-known candidates say they have already won.
“The moment we decided to have this new platform and run for elections, knowing that we have limited resources and knowing what we’re facing … it means that we are optimistic and doing something good,” Kollouna Watani candidate Laury Haytayan said.
“Regardless of the result, we think this is a historic victory.”
CNN’s Ghazi Balkiz and Richard Harlow contributed to this report.