BEIRUT, May 6 (Reuters)
Voting began on Sunday in Lebanon's first general election for nine years, an event seen as unlikely to upset the overall balance of power but important for economic stability.
Television broadcasts showed people queuing at polling stations across the tiny Mediterranean country to cast their votes under new electoral rules.
Cars and mopeds were decked out with the flags of the main parties, loudspeakers blared songs in support of candidates near their electoral strongholds and young people outside polling stations wore T-shirts bearing the faces of political leaders.
Lebanon has one of the world's highest debt-to-GDP ratios and the International Monetary Fund has warned its fiscal trajectory is unsustainable.
The country has mostly weathered the regional storm caused by seven years of war in neighbouring Syria, but it has gone through several internal crises since the last election.
Voting is scheduled to last from 7 a.m. (0400 GMT) until 7 p.m. (1600 GMT), with unofficial results expected to start coming in overnight and a formal tally in the coming days. Election law makes it illegal on Sunday to publish forecasts of how the parties will perform before polls close.
Whatever the result, another coalition government including most of the major parties, like that which has governed since 2016, is likely to be formed after the election, analysts have said.
Abu Sami, 40, a civil servant, said he was tired of the established politicians. "Today I will choose new faces," he said.
Parliament seats are divided evenly between Muslims and Christians, and further subdivided among the various sects of those religions. Lebanon's president must always be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the parliament speaker a Shi'ite.
Analysts are closely watching the performance of Sunni Muslim Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri's Future Movement party and that of the Iran-backed, Shi'ite Hezbollah group and its allies.
Lebanon has periodically been an arena for the intense regional competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
However, in recent years, Riyadh has pulled back from its previous support for Hariri, backing that helped Future in 2009 when it was part of the 'March 14' coalition focused on making Hezbollah give up its massive arsenal.
That issue has been quietly shelved as the main parties have focused on getting the economy back on track and grappling with the refugee crisis.
Getting a new government in place quickly would reassure investors of Lebanon's economic stability. Donors pledged $11 billion in soft loans for a capital investment programme last month, in return for fiscal and other reforms, and the first follow-up meeting is expected within weeks.
Debt ratings agencies had stressed the importance of Lebanon going ahead with the election after parliament had extended its term several times.
After the last election in 2009, the onset of Syria's civil war, the arrival of over a million refugees and a series of militant attacks aggravated internal political rifts.
Rival blocs in parliament could not agree on a new president between 2014-16 and repeatedly decided to delay elections, partly because of disagreement over moving from a winner-takes-all to a proportional voting system.
Voters are registered not where they live, but in the district their ancestors came from, meaning large numbers of voters have to travel from the capital Beirut to villages across the country.
The complicated new system has confused some voters and made the contest unpredictable in formerly safe seats but still preserves the country's sectarian power sharing system. It is seen as unlikely to undermine the long-entrenched political elite, a group that includes local dynasties and former warlords.
In municipal elections two years ago, independent candidates did well against established political parties by drawing on public anger at poor government services, including a crisis in which mountains of garbage piled in the streets.
Despite some acts of violence and intimidation connected to the election in recent weeks, no major incidents were reported in the immediate run-up to voting or during the first hours after polls opened.
However, there was a security presence in Beirut on Sunday and a Reuters witness saw a long military column of armoured vehicles and other troop carriers driving slowly into the capital. Security forces stood sentry on street corners and near the polling booths.
Observers from the European Union and other international bodies are monitoring the poll.