A man in Byblos puts his checked ballot in the box as he casts his vote in the first parliamentary election in nine years on May 6, 2018. (JOSEPH EID/AFP via Getty Images)
Explainers

Lebanon’s Parliamentary Elections: High Stakes Amid Crisis

All eyes are turning towards Lebanon’s spring 2022 parliamentary elections—and for good reason. Since the last parliamentary elections in 2018, the country has undergone revolution, economic and financial collapse, a mismanaged pandemic, and an explosion that killed hundreds and vaulted the issue of systemic impunity to center-stage. Lebanon’s current predicament is widely attributed to a political class and traditional establishment parties that have dominated parliamentary elections since the 1990s; however, many are cautiously optimistic that the 2022 election cycle has potential to bring about change. 

The stakes of fair and transparent elections are immensely high in the wake of Lebanon’s compounding crises. The incoming parliament has the potential for implementing reforms demanded by Lebanese citizens and the international community, along with maintaining the status quo predicated on corruption, poor governance, and impunity. The current parliament’s ability to hold social assistance legislation hostage and aid and abet its members in evading accountability for the Beirut blast have only underscored the sway of parliament in shaping the current environment. The European Union, among others, has also indicated that the fate of much-needed international support hinges on holding free, transparent elections without delay. 

Elections can only bring about change to the extent the underlying framework allows for it. With so much hanging in the balance this election cycle, it is critical to examine what Lebanon’s electoral law looks like both on paper and on the ground, the international legal standards it should meet, and what issues will be important to watch in anticipation of elections in the spring. 

Lebanon’s electoral framework, in law and practice

Parliamentary elections are supposed to be held for all 128 seats every four years, a time frame generally respected except for the nine-year gap prior to the most recent 2018 elections. Under the constitutionally mandated confessional system, 64 seats are allocated for Muslims and Christians each, with smaller sectarian allocations within those blocs. By law, candidates contest seats allocated to their respective confessions, though are not required to be of the same party as the seat’s previous holder. Election procedures are primarily governed by a complex electoral law—Law No. 44/2017—and its amendments.

The electoral law permits anyone over the age of 21 to vote except for military personnel, individuals naturalized less than ten years ago, and those stripped of civil and political rights (through certain criminal convictions). While pretrial detainees, hospital patients, and people with disabilities are not explicitly prohibited from voting, no measures exist to facilitate their right to vote in practice. Individuals cannot vote where they reside; instead, citizens must vote in their paternal ancestral villages, which requires mass movement of people around the country every election day. For those registering as candidates, the law requires a nomination fee of LBP 8 million (more than $5,000 by the official exchange rate), providing a significant financial barrier to running for office for those who are not wealthy or backed by institutional parties. Despite a strong push from civil society to improve Lebanon’s poor track record for women’s parliamentary representation and political participation in general, no proposed gender quotas are included in the law.

Electoral administration is designated as a government function, managed from start to finish by the Ministry of Interior with some assistance from other agencies, such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs which handles the diaspora vote. Separate from the government agencies, the law established the Supervisory Commission for Elections (SCE) as an independent body intended to monitor campaign finance and media compliance but failed to grant it the autonomy and enforcement power to live up to its potential. Financial and administrative dependence, delayed budgets, short audit timeframes, and insufficient resources have all undermined the SCE’s ability to fulfill its role effectively in the past. 

Even with a fully functioning SCE, the electoral law’s campaign finance and spending provisions still favor the country’s wealthy and institutionalized parties. The law’s high spending ceilings (over $1.7 million per candidate in some constituencies) and inadequate enforcement regimes for campaign finance violations distorted the last election’s playing field in favor of traditional parties with more resources and institutional backing than civil society and independent candidates. While the law grants the SCE power to monitor campaign finances, it must go to the Public Prosecution or Ministry of Interior to request sanctions when financing provisions are violated, jeopardizing the Commission’s independence by requiring it to seek permission from members of some of the very same parties as the candidates it is trying to sanction. Moreover, the provisions are limited only to candidate spending; political parties are governed by a separate Ottoman-era law which places no regulations on party finances. As for private contributions, an individual donor can contribute up to half the amount of the spending ceiling, and the law places no restrictions on public contributions. 

The general campaigning provisions of the law also work against less-established candidates. In particular, Article 62 of the law does not consider providing services or material support to voters a form of bribery, so long as the benefits have been provided consistently by candidates, their institutions, or political parties for three years prior to the election. This provision paves the way for well-entrenched sectarian institutions who provide welfare and other social services in absence of state-provided programs to garner influence over elections through old patronage networks. The division between establishment and independent candidates was also felt on the ground in 2018, when independent candidates in some districts reported being denied the right to canvas or hold events in neighborhoods that were establishment party strongholds, despite having a legal right. 

In the most recent 2018 election cycle, media access and free speech also presented concerning issues. The electoral law’s unclear media provisions, combined with the existing partisan alignment of many media outlets, resulted in generally unbalanced election coverage and uneven access to the media for all contestants. Authorities have a record of using defamation laws to target activists and journalists who criticize officials, and Human Rights Watch documented a notable uptick in defamation and incitement prosecutions during the last election cycle. 

Gaps between law and practice also left room for discrimination and coercion on election day in 2018. While provisions in the electoral law provided people with disabilities the option of assisted voting, this was not implemented in practice. Moreover, only 47 percent of polling stations were accessible to people with disabilities. The electoral law introduced official printed ballots for the first time in the last cycle to enhance voting secrecy and reduce fraud, but did little to address the prevalence of vote-buying and coercion. Election monitors documented coercion at polling stations in the form of overbearing candidate agents from establishment parties targeting elderly and vulnerable voters and even accompanying them into voting boxes. One study estimated that at least half of all voters were subject to vote-buying in 2018, resulting in artificially high voter turnout to the benefit of traditional parties. In the words of one party agent during the 2018 cycle, “the price of a vote is $500.”

International election standards

While a plethora of international legal instruments provide guidance on elections and election management, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) provides some of the most comprehensive binding standards under Article 25: the right to partake in public affairs. As a state party to the ICCPR, Lebanon has a binding international legal obligation to ensure that every citizen has the right and opportunity, without discrimination, to vote and be elected at genuine periodic elections. These elections should be by universal and equal suffrage and held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors.

Within this framework, states should guarantee that candidates and voters have the right to participate, both under law and in practice, inclusively and without discrimination. Restrictions on the right to stand for election cannot be unreasonable, discriminatory, or require membership in a political party. Nomination dates and fees for candidates also should not be unreasonable or discriminatory. States are required to take measures to ensure that all those entitled to vote are able to and that voter registration is facilitated and obstacles are not imposed.

States should also ensure elections are administered in a fair, impartial, and timely manner without unduly long intervals. Independent electoral authority should be empowered to supervise the process and ensure elections are conducted fairly, impartially, and lawfully. Both the voting and counting processes should be subject to independent scrutiny, and access to judicial review should be available. States are also obligated to ensure that all political parties respect the rights guaranteed by ICCPR Article 25. 

Campaign practices should not distort the democratic process or will of the voters. This is particularly relevant to campaign finance restrictions, which may be necessary to guarantee that free choice of the voters and the democratic process are not undermined or distorted by disproportionate financing.

Free communication of information and ideas is essential. Members of the media should be able to write and disseminate information to the public without censorship or restraint—implicating a number of other rights that states are required to respect under the ICCPR, including holding peaceful demonstrations and freely expressing criticism and opposition. 

States should also ensure voters are not subject to undue influence or coercion and that secrecy is protected. This means voters should be free to form opinions without influence of violence, threats, or manipulative interference of any kind that may distort free expression. Moreover, states should legally prohibit voter coercion and interference and should ensure vote secrecy for all, including absentee voters, and protect voters from any coercion or compulsion to disclose their vote to others. Moreover, states should guarantee the security of ballot boxes and votes should not be counted in the presence of the candidates or candidate agents. 

In Article 4, the ICCPR permits states to derogate from certain obligations, including Article 25, in times of public emergency, but only to the extent required and only under two conditions: the situation must amount to an emergency that threatens the life of the nation, and the state must have officially declared a state of emergency.

Looking towards 2022 

Earlier this month, parliament passed a set of amendments to the electoral law in anticipation of upcoming elections. The amendments took effect on November 3 after considerable back and forth and without the president’s signature. Just two weeks later, MPs from the Strong Lebanon bloc submitted a complaint challenging the constitutionality of the amendments in the Constitutional Council. If successful, the challenge could ultimately upend the new amendments. Additional changes in the form of constitutional challenges or more amendments may still be on the horizon. 

Provided they remain in effect, the November amendments implemented several significant changes, both positive and negative. Firstly, the election date was moved from May to March. Early elections were a demand of opposition parties and encouraged by the international community, but the true intentions behind the change are suspected to be politically motivated. The November amendments also significantly raised both the campaign spending ceilings as well as the nomination fees, increasing financial barriers to participation as inequality gaps widen and over three-quarters of the population slip into poverty. 

Most contentiously, the November amendments allow diaspora citizens to cast votes for all 128 seats for the first time. Seen largely as a victory for the expat community, growing by the day as young Lebanese emigrate to escape the collapse, concerns remain over the intentional vagueness of procedures and the potential for votes to be cancelled if the amendments are deemed unconstitutional, potentially disenfranchising the over 244,000 expats registered. Serious concerns also surround data privacy after establishment party representatives began badgering registered diaspora voters from Canada to Australia and calling to inquire who they were voting for, only further sowing distrust. 

Perhaps most telling is what was not passed with the November amendments, and which failures from the 2018 election cycle remain at risk of being repeated. Despite being one of only nine countries in the world whose minimum voting age is 21, lowering the voting age to 18 was only briefly discussed but seemed to be dead on arrival. Two proposals were floated for reserving 20-26 seats for a women’s quota, but both were sent to committees for further study, a “death sentence” for proposed legislation. So far despite a significant increase in the number of people with disabilities following the Beirut blast, no plans have been made to address last cycle’s accessibility issues.

The November amendments also failed to address clientelism, vote-buying, or coercion despite strong documentation by electoral monitoring reports and policy groups that these were major obstacles in the previous election. New provisions were not proposed, and loopholes in the electoral law that help facilitate these issues such as Article 62 remain. The experiences of 2018 combined with the rise in recent incidents such as the “jabs for votes” scandal, ration card postponement, and rise in fuel patronage all indicate these will be issues to watch in spring 2022. 

Despite officials openly acknowledging the ineffectiveness of the SCE, nothing in the amendments aims to strengthen the efficiency or autonomy of Lebanon’s one supposedly independent electoral monitoring body. Without a fully independent SCE, which would require legal provisions establishing its financial and administrative autonomy as well as granting it at least some enforcement power, concern remains over the independence of the upcoming election’s administration as a whole. 

Plans have not yet been released—through the November amendments or otherwise—on how the government plans to adapt to the inevitable disruptions caused by shortages and infrastructure failures. Legal provisions requiring voters to report to polling places in their paternal ancestral villages are still in place yet will invariably disenfranchise voters who do not have access to transportation due to the fuel crisis. Using livestream video feeds and internet links between the Ministry of Interior and polling stations was relied on in 2018 to enhance transparency, but will surely present challenges now due to blackouts that have become so pervasive that they forced parliament to temporarily delay approving the new government just two months ago.

Moreover, no proposals have been presented for holding by-elections (contests for seats that were vacated mid-term) anytime between now and spring 2022. Currently, twelve seats remain vacant in parliament, eight belonging to MPs who resigned after the Beirut blast and four who died from COVID-19 and other illnesses. Under Article 41 of the Constitution, by-elections must be held within two months of vacancies to ensure adequate representation of the will of the voters. This has yet to happen and may very well not.