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Half a Cheer for Democracy in Lebanon

Perhaps the most encouraging thing about the parliamentary elections on Sunday in Lebanon is that they were held at all after years of delay and political inertia, corruption, economic stagnation and foreign meddling.

Lebanon suffers from multiple crises that lead to a perpetual state of paralysis: more than one million Syrian refugees are straining social services; public debt stands at $79 billion, or 150 percent of gross domestic product; the government fails to provide basic services like electricity and garbage collection; and there are fears of a new war between Israel and Hezbollah, the Shiite party and dominant military force in Lebanon.

During the electoral campaign, few candidates or parties offered solutions to these systemic problems. Instead, most of the electioneering focused on mobilizing sectarian sentiments among Lebanon’s 4.5 million people.

Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a Sunni who is an ally of Saudi Arabia and the United States, called on supporters to vote for “Lebanon’s stability, economy, sovereignty and Arab identity.” That was a reminder of Hezbollah’s alliance with Iran, which Mr. Hariri and other Sunni leaders have argued threatens Lebanon’s Arab identity and its relationship with Sunni Arab states.

Hezbollah and its allies also deployed a sectarian narrative, which labeled Shiite opponents as agents of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. One Hezbollah-affiliated newspaper published a list of Shiite opposition candidates it claimed, based on leaked diplomatic cables, were being funded by the Emirates.

Even with these sectarian appeals, a majority of voters stayed home. The turnout was 49 percent, dashing hopes that the Lebanese would embrace their first national vote in nine years. The election was originally scheduled for 2013, but the Lebanese Parliament extended its own term and postponed the balloting several times using the ruse that security concerns made it difficult to hold elections.

A new law laid out a parliamentary map on Sunday that was different from that of past elections, dividing the country into 15 districts and 27 sub-districts, and establishing a complex new system of proportional representation that allowed voters to choose both a slate of candidates in larger districts and a preferred candidate running in their sub-districts. The new law, which replaced a winner-take-all system, was pitched by some Lebanese leaders as a way to enable independent and civil society groups to compete against established, largely sectarian-based parties and political bosses.

It did not work out that way. The election strengthened Hezbollah, which along with its allies won

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