December 15, 2017 / 2:01 PM / 6 months ago

Lebanon sets May date for first parliamentary vote in nearly a decade

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanon has set a date of May 6 next year to hold its first legislative election in nearly a decade, potentially transforming the politics of a country caught in a confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk signed a decree setting the date on Friday, allowing the vote to go ahead at last. The election has been postponed three times since the last vote in 2009, with politicians citing security concerns, political crisis and a dispute over the election law.

Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri’s coalition government, which took office a year ago, agreed on the new election law in June, but setting the date was held up while officials debated technical details and registered Lebanese citizens abroad.

Lebanon’s political landscape has shifted dramatically since the last election. Hariri’s pro-Western, Saudi-backed political alliance has split up. For the past year he has led a power-sharing government which includes the heavily armed, Iran-backed Shi’ite movement Hezbollah, despised by his Saudi allies.

Hariri sparked a political crisis last month by announcing his resignation while in Riyadh and denouncing Hezbollah and Iran. He stayed abroad for two weeks before returning, and finally withdrew his resignation last week.

Lebanon has a complex electoral system designed to maintain civil peace in a country where Sunnis, Shi’ites, Christians and Druze fought numerous civil wars since independence in 1943.

The 128-seat parliament includes 64 Christians apportioned among seven denominations, and 64 Muslims, including equal numbers of Sunnis and Shi’ites. The country is divided into districts that each vote for multiple lawmakers according to strict religious quotas.

The president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the parliament speaker a Shi’ite Muslim, representing the three biggest groups in parliament.

The international community has repeatedly stressed the importance of Lebanon holding timely elections to restore confidence in its institutions and maintain stability.

Machnouk said Lebanese abroad would be able to vote on April 22 and 28.

Writing by Dahlia Nehme and Lisa Barrington; Editing by Jeremy Gaunt, Tom Perry and Peter Graff

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