Page last updated at 09:19 GMT, Monday, 8 June 2009 10:19 UK

Q&A: Lebanese elections explained

Lebanon election posters
Lebanese elections are keenly fought in a country of many minorities

Lebanon has voted for a new parliament, in elections that many believe could prove decisive for the country's future and the regional balance of power.

The pro-Western and Saudi-backed 14 March governing coalition, which won a slim parliamentary majority in the last election in 2005, claimed a narrow victory in the face of a strong challenge from the Hezbollah-led opposition backed by Syria and Iran.

What is the background?

The 2005 coalition came to power on a wave of anger at Syria's longstanding influence over Lebanon provoked by the killing of former PM Rafik Hariri. His supporters blamed the murder on Syria, although Damascus denied any involvement.

But subsequently, a long political stand-off between the new 14 March ruling coalition and the pro-Syrian opposition over the election of a new president culminated in violent clashes across the country in May 2008.

After a long series of unsuccessful talks and outbreaks of violence, the rival parties held reconciliation talks in the Qatari capital, Doha, which resulted in the formation of a national unity government, with the opposition getting 11 out of 27 ministerial posts.

What is the electoral system?

Lebanon's MPs are elected through a confessional system - that is one which allows 11 of the country's religious minorities a guaranteed fixed representation in parliament.

The 128-seat chamber is divided equally between Muslim and Christian communities, giving each 64 seats (even though the proportion of Christians in the overall population has declined since the system was put in place, and is now at an estimated 35-40%).

The system gives Sunni Muslims 27 seats and Shia Muslims the same number. The Druze get eight seats and Alawites two. On the Christian side, 34 seats are reserved for Maronites, 14 for Greek Orthodox, eight for Catholics, six for Armenians and two for other Christian minorities.

MPs are elected for four-year terms in 26 multi-seat constituencies. Lebanese men and women above 21 years of age have the right to vote, whether they are resident in Lebanon or not.

Although candidates compete against their co-religionists for a fixed numbers of seats in each constituency, electors from other confessional groups can vote for them too - a system designed to prevent candidates representing the interests only of their own group.

For example, the Baabda constituency has six seats, three for Maronite Christians, two for Shia Muslims and one for a Druze deputy - broadly reflecting the confessional make-up of the constituency. All voters can vote for six candidates and the winners will be the ones who pick up the most votes among their confessional group.

Critics of the system say in the past it has encouraged gerrymandering of votes. The boundaries of voting districts were altered by a parliamentary vote in September 2008.

What are the electoral alliances?

The backbone of the outgoing parliamentary majority, the14 March coalition, is the mainly-Sunni Future movement (Mustaqbal in Arabic) headed by Saad Hariri, son of the assassinated former PM Rafik Hariri.

Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah and Sa'ad Hariri
The two main blocs are led by Hassan Nasrallah and Sa'ad Hariri

The alliance also includes the Progressive Socialist Party, a Druze group headed by Walid Jumblatt, the Christian Lebanese Forces led by Samir Geagea, the Christian Phalangist party, as well as numerous smaller groups.

The Opposition coalition - known in the press as the 8 March coalition - is built around the Iranian-backed Shia Hezbollah (Party of God in Arabic), which has a strong military wing, and the pro-Syrian Shia Amal movement headed by the current parliamentary speaker, Nabih Berri.

Other important players in the opposition bloc are the mainly Christian Free Patriotic Movement led by former army chief Michel Aoun, and two pro-Syrian and mainly Christian parties, al-Marada and the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party.

Was the election fair?

Even though the voting process itself was thought to be generally fair, some believe unfair tactics were being applied ahead of the election, with newspapers reporting that the major parties were spending hundreds of millions of dollars to buy votes and fly Lebanese home to vote.

International observers were sent by the European Union, the Arab League, the Carter Foundation, the Turkish government and the US National Democratic Institute.

BBC Monitoringselects and translates news from radio, television, press, news agencies and the internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages. It is based in Caversham, UK, and has several bureaux abroad.

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