On May 6 and May 8, Lebanese expatriates in 58 countries headed to polling centers to cast their votes to elect a new parliament. Out of the 225,000 eligible voters, some 130,000 participated in a well-organized process, despite prior concerns about insufficient funding, threats of strikes by diplomatic staff, and misallocation of voters to polling centers. Domestic election observers from the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections spotted minor problems during the two voting days, mainly issues of active campaigning in front of polling centers and limited cases of voter intimidation.
It will be the turn of the citizens in Lebanon to vote on May 15, thus concluding a crucial event that is pitted as a match between a long-established political class seeking to reaffirm its legitimacy and a nascent opposition trying to gain a foothold in parliament after three years of worsening protracted crises. Much hinges on these elections, as the new parliament is expected to elect a new president in October 2022 and to help form a new government, thus determining the nature of a future economic reform plan and the country’s negotiations with the International Monetary Fund.
The legitimacy of these elections will greatly depend on how well the general vote is managed, the turnout it will produce, and the readiness of the electoral authorities to overcome the myriad exceptional challenges posed by an unprecedented economic crisis, a crumbling infrastructure, and a fragile security situation.
A limited impact despite decent diaspora turnout and media attention
As a result of a registration drive organized in November 2021, the number of registered diaspora voters had tripled compared to 2018. France, the United States, Canada, Australia, and the UAE topped the list of countries with the highest numbers of registered voters, with all five countries recording turnouts exceeding 55 percent.
The overall diaspora turnout indicates that Lebanese expatriates have actively mobilized to participate in the electoral process and were undeterred by legal and political ambiguity, a divided opposition, or in-country intimidation. It is also a further indication of the diaspora’s growing political involvement, compared to previous years. Preliminary information also reveal that Sunni expatriate voters have not completely shunned away from the process despite speculations of a Sunni abstention after Saad Hariri, the former prime minister and the head of the largest Sunni parliamentary block, announced that he was withdrawing from politics and that his party, the Future Movement, would not participate in the elections.
Once diaspora ballot papers reach Lebanon, they will be stored in the vaults of the central bank until the end of voting on May 15. They will then be dispatched to their corresponding electoral district to be manually counted and tabulated. If not well managed, the few remaining steps related to diaspora voting could witness irregularities such as the disappearance of some ballot boxes, similar to what happened in 2018, or a delay in the announcement of results, as the manual counting of 130,000 ballots is time consuming.
While important, the diaspora vote has a minor impact on the final results as the total number of registered expatriates represents only 6 percent of the 3,970,073 eligible voters. The distribution of diaspora voters to electoral districts limits its impact to a handful of districts—five at most, out of the country’s 15 districts.
The diaspora vote and the relatively decent turnout gestured positive developments signaling that these elections could be well executed after all but the real test remains the general voting on May 15, and what happens next.
The electoral law: An uneven playing field
Despite hopeful signals from the diaspora vote, a sweeping change is unlikely to occur as traditional political parties still enjoy some level of popularity, and the election law, adopted in 2017, was designed to block newcomers and protect the interests of the ruling political class.
After failing to agree on an electoral law, the parliament extended its own mandate twice in 2013 and 2014 before adopting Law No. 44 in June 2017. For the first time in its history, Lebanon switched from a majoritarian electoral system to an open list proportional system; this meant that instead of a “winner takes all” approach, the new system should, in principle, distribute seats to winning lists based on their vote share if they reach an electoral quotient. Voters are granted one preferential vote that can be given to a candidate in their sub-electoral district.
The law, which introduced cosmetic reforms in 2017, contains elements that strip the proportional system from its functions and does not guarantee an even playing field among political contestants.
The electoral formula for example disqualifies lists that do not achieve the electoral quotient from winning seats. The quotient is district-specific and is calculated by dividing the total number of valid votes (including blank votes) by the total number of seats. In 2018, it varied from 7.7 percent in the district of Aley and Chouf (known as Mount Lebanon IV), to 20 percent in Saida and Jezzine (South Lebanon I). This makes “qualifying to win a seat” easier in some districts than others. This floating formula was further exacerbated by the disproportionate distribution of seats to districts. This meant that some districts were already over-represented while others were under-represented: A list needed 5,458 votes in East Beirut (Beirut I) to qualify to win a parliamentary seat, while it needed 21,043 votes in Tyre and Zahrani (South Lebanon II). Therefore, the high and variant quotient acts as an entry barrier to newer political challengers and encourages cheese splitting between well-organized traditional parties.
Electoral gerrymandering, very common in Lebanon especially under the Syrian occupation, was again employed in 2017. Instead of drawing the districts based on a set of clear criteria, the 15 electoral districts were carefully drawn to preserve the interests of the political class. The best example to illustrate this is how the city of Saida (Sunni majority) was carved out from the administrative district of Zahrani (Shia majority) then merged with Jezzine (Christian majority) to form South Lebanon I—an electoral district that is not even geographically connected.
Finally, the electoral law allocates seats to winners based on the share of preferential votes they receive in their sub-electoral district. This method allows political figures or parties to “geo-fence” their areas of influence making it hard if not impossible for political outsiders to break through.
In addition to structural problems with the electoral system, the law contains a weak regulatory framework for campaign finance. It does not, for example, consider providing services or material support to voters a bribery, as long as such support has been provided consistently by candidates, their organizations, or political parties for three years prior to the election. This gives a clear advantage to well-established political parties that have been providing social welfare services to their constituents for years. All these structural obstacles make it hard for new challengers to translate the votes they receive into meaningful wins.
The Supervisory Commission for Elections (SCE), which is tasked to be the country’s main electoral supervisory body, has had its role systematically jeopardized ever since its creation in 2008. The SCE is a semi-independent regulatory body under the authority of the Ministry of Interior and Municipalities, in charge of developing media and campaign finance regulations, as well as overseeing candidate registration and campaign compliance. However, its legal framework fails to grant it clear enforcement powers. A chronic lack of resources has also affected staffing, hindered capacity building, and made monitoring candidates and their spending an impossible task.
Challenges to look out for on election day
The 2022 elections are being organized during exceptional times that have been challenging the electoral administration with unconventional financial, operational, and security obstacles. The Ministry of Interior, the primary body responsible for administering elections, has been struggling to tackle some of the obstacles and last minute issues. As election workers vote today, and with a few days remaining before election day, there are several challenges and possible problems that could make or break this crucial event.
These elections’ main logistical challenge is the recruitment, training, and management of an enormous workforce. Amidst a worsening economic crisis, the frequent and ongoing strikes of public sector employees—including public school and Lebanese University teachers and professors—could threaten the ability of the Ministry of Interior to deploy the 15,000 election workers needed to run the elections. Poll workers’ compensation is set at LBP 3.6 million (approximately $133 in the black market), which is considered low by many for a weekend-long assignment which does not include paid accommodation and transportation, while they only learn on May 14 where they would be stationed. This could lead to a potentially high dropout rate on election day. The Interior Ministry has already shown a persistence to overcome this challenge by working with the Ministry of Justice to replace 45 judges who had requested last month to be exempted from their role as heads of registration committees, due to what they considered as low wage or distant deployment station. Future last-minute absences could lead to serious staffing issues on May 15. This worry has led the interior minister to reiterate the need for polling staff, including judges, to show up on election, promising them that their fees would be “fair” and that the payment would be made in cash on the same week.
The lack of funding has pushed the Ministry of Interior to train its poll workers via a training video instead of training them in person. This strategy does not provide for quality control. It could also exacerbate the inadequate implementation of voting and counting procedures that was highlighted by international observers in 2018, posing a risk on the integrity of the process.
In previous elections, Electricité du Liban (EDL), the national electricity company, would increase its electricity supply to ensure polling and tabulation centers are supplied with power during the whole voting and counting process. This will not be the case this year as the government is running low on cash and will not be able to cover the $16 million upfront requested payment by EDL, as power cuts have worsened throughout the country, lasting up to 22 hours a day in most areas. This led the Minister of Interior to devise a decentralized plan that relies on private generators to provide power to electoral centers. While this plan is less costly than working with EDL, relying on local generators could lead to an inadequate supply of electrical power and enable local political forces to use power outages to disrupt the process if needed. Internet connectivity poses another challenge that could disrupt the results management system. The Ministry of Telecommunication is coordinating with the national telecom provider Ogero as well as the two mobile operators to overcome this challenge. However, the recurrent network failures due to fuel shortages and theft of equipment could disrupt a much needed reliable connection on election day.
The major concern for the upcoming election remains electoral violence and intimidation. Lebanon is not new to electoral violence and intimidation during campaign period and on election days. However, with higher stakes at hand, the political class is resorting to intimidation and violence to silence contenders in a hope to preserve power. Intimidation is on the rise with incidents reported in several electoral districts during the campaign, such as in South Lebanon II, South III, Bekaa III, and Beirut II. This pattern is expected to intensify closer to election day and until the announcement of results, especially since deterrence mechanisms are weak or absent.
The 2019 revolution might have brought at the time a renewed sense of hope for a drastic system change, after decades of corruption at the hands of the same political establishment. However, after more than two years of a financial crisis, drastically worsening living conditions, increased poverty, a degradation in the security situation, the Beirut blast, and with it the failure to hold anyone accountable, a sense of realism has settled in. The discussion has instead shifted to how a handful of new alternative political winners could set the building blocks for gradually reforming the system. Despite this reality, the stakes are high for Lebanon, as are potential risks. How the election process is carried on May 15 will set the tone of what’s to come next for the country’s near future.
Maroun Sfeir is a governance and elections specialist who has worked extensively in the MENA region.