BEIRUT: The Lebanese voted Sunday for the first time since 2010 in municipal elections in Beirut and the Bekaa region amid tight security measures and a relatively low turnout across the country.
Polling stations closed as planned at 7 p.m. with the capital registering the lowest voter turnout while the city of Zahle in the Bekaa region witnessed a heated electoral battle.
The final results are expected as early as Monday morning. Three other rounds of municipal elections will take place over the coming weeks in other parts of the country.
Polling stations opened at 7 a.m. in the first vote since the government postponed parliamentary elections that were scheduled to take place in 2013, citing security concerns linked to the conflict in neighboring Syria.
There were reports of limited scuffles outside some polling stations in Zahle but no major security incidents derailed the voting across the country.
In a statement released after the polls closed, Future Movement leader and former Prime Minister Saad Hariri said: "These (elections) prove that Lebanon's democracy is in good shape and we can hold elections."
Political analysts say the successful organization of the municipal elections will strengthen the argument that delaying upcoming parliamentary elections for security concerns is unnecessary.
More than 20,000 members of the military and security forces were deployed to ensure the safety of the electoral process and polling stations.
In Beirut, where thousands of people had taken to the streets to protest an eight monthlong trash crisis that erupted in July, a group of candidate backed an all-embracing political coalition ran against members of civil society groups who vowed to fight corruption and find a sustainable waste management solution.
The elections mainly pitted candidates from the Beirut Madinati, Arabic for "Beirut, My City," against "Beirutis," a list backed by Hariri, Speaker Nabih Berri's Amal Movement and the country's three main Christian political parties.
The interior minister said turnout was close to 20 percent in the capital. Hezbollah chose not to back any candidates running for Beirut's municipal council, a decision welcomed by Hariri.
Hariri told reporters at a polling station in Verdun neighborhood, where he voted that Hezbollah's decision was "an additional (positive) thing for Beirut."
The highest turnout was in Baalbek district where 62 percent of the electorate voted while turnout in Zahle district stood at 52.6 percent.
In Zahle, supporters of rival parties traded accusations over bribery charges as the Lebanese army intervened to contain a scuffle that broke out between members of the Lebanese Forces and the Popular Bloc, which is headed by Myriam Skaff, the wife of late MP Elie Skaff.
Candidates backed by Skaff are competing with members of a list backed by a coalition of Christian parties including the Free Patriotic Movement, LF and Kataeb party and another list of candidates supported by MP Nicolas Fattoush.
Hezbollah's deputy secretary-general Naim Qassem said the party has instructed its supporters to vote for runners nominated by the FPM, the Popular Bloc and Fattoush, practically asking voters to cross out candidates backed by the LF and Kabaeb.
In Baalbek, candidates backed by Hezbollah and the Amal Movement ran against family-backed candidates.
In the eastern border town of Arsal, a curfew was imposed on tens of thousands of Syrian refugees until the polling stations closed.
The town of Arsal, which borders the mountainous region of Qalamoun in Syria, was briefly captured in 2014 by Islamist militants who abducted more than 20 Lebanese soldiers and policemen.
After days of fierce clashes, the Lebanese army was able to regain control of the town and its outskirts, driving militant groups back into the mountainous border region.
Over the past few months, the Lebanese army has fortified its outposts and expanded its surveillance of the north-eastern border to thwart infiltration attempts by militants into Arsal region.
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