Expatriates kicked off Lebanon's parliamentary polls by voting abroad on Friday, a first for the small country's huge diaspora.
The 12,611 Lebanese voters registered in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and Egypt will be the first to cast ballots for the 128 seats in Lebanon's parliament.
The overall voter turnout was at 48.11% at 5:25 pm Beirut time according to the National News Agency.
Voters elsewhere in the world will vote on Sunday, a week before the May 6 polling in Lebanon, which has not renewed its parliament since 2009.
But of the estimated one million-plus Lebanese nationals scattered across the globe, of which around two thirds qualify to vote, a total of only 82,900 people have registered.
Akram Khater, director of a center for Lebanese diaspora studies at North Carolina State University, says promotion for the new initiative has been limited.
"This is a new experiment that has been poorly publicized, and many are not sure of the mechanism, the implications of their vote," he said.
Others may be disillusioned after a series of political crises that notably saw the last parliament extend its own mandate three times.
"Many are reluctant to participate in what is widely regarded as rigged elections which will only bring back the same crop of politicians from the same parties," Khater said.
The numbers of voters registered outside Lebanon is a fraction of the 3.7 million eligible voters at home.
- Massive diaspora -
But for a first try, "it's a satisfactory" number, a diplomat told AFP.
The vote is being held under a new law that allows Lebanese living abroad to vote for the first time since independence in 1943 and introduces a proportional list-based system.
Expatriates will cast their vote for one list of candidates running in their Lebanese district of origin.
On this list of parliamentary hopefuls, representing each religious community in that district under a strict quota system, they will also choose one candidate.
Results from the expat voting will not be published until parliament elections are completed May 6. The government has declared May 4 to May 7 a public holiday in Lebanon to facilitate the elections.
Half of the seats in Lebanon's parliament are reserved for Christians and the other half for Muslims.
After successive waves of emigration from the 19th century to the 1975-1990 civil war, some estimates say Lebanon's extended diaspora has bloated to a whopping 12 million but most no longer have citizenship.
Christians were well represented in the early diaspora and were the first to press for expatriate polling, according to Akram Khater.
But the demographics of Lebanon's diaspora and of the pool of those eligible to vote have evolved, and other communities are now on board with expatriate polling.
Some Christian parties -- like the Lebanese Forces and Marada Movement -- have worked hard in their biggest expat hubs like Australia and France to promote voter registration, said Ali Mourad, professor of public law at the Beirut Arab University.
- Diplomatic pouch -
"Their participation could be important for example in Christian districts in northern Lebanon," he said. "It can influence the result of the vote if competition is tight" between lists.
And instead of picking traditional candidates, some voters outside the country could look for alternatives in civil society lists.
Voters will head to 116 polling stations in Lebanese embassies and consulates in 39 countries, and their votes will be shipped to Beirut in the diplomatic pouch.
They will then be stored at the Central Bank after being sorted into electoral districts, and dispatched to each of these for counting on May 6.
The government has said polling stations abroad will be monitored by security cameras.
With registration relatively low, the political weight of Lebanon's diaspora vote this year will be "symbolic", elections consultant Said Sanadiki said.
But in 2022, "in the next elections, six seats will be allocated to the diaspora," he said. And then it will be "a different game."