Going after Lebanon’s first-time voters

The number of first-time voters registered for the 2018 elections is estimated at about 700,000.
Sunday 29/04/2018
A young man inks his thumb after casting his ballot at a polling station during the 2016 municipal elections in Beirut. (AP)
Concerts and social media. A young man inks his thumb after casting his ballot at a polling station during the 2016 municipal elections in Beirut. (AP)

BEIRUT - In the nine years since Lebanon’s most recent general elections, more than 500,000 people have crossed the 21-year-old threshold and become eligible to vote. Some political groups, notably those formed by civil society, are banking on young people’s participation and a nationwide online campaign called “Take Action” is using social media, concerts and other nontraditional platforms to woo first-time voters to the polls on May 6.

“The main mission of the campaign is to motivate first-time voters aged 21-30 to actually go and exercise their constitutional right. We started in December with events and activities across Lebanon to introduce and explain the new electoral law through presentations, vox pops and promotional visuals,” said campaign activist Sally Halawi.

“The number of first-time voters this year is very big and we believe that they are going to make a difference in the election. They are not really politicised but they want to see change, to see new faces in parliament.”

Several NGOs and political parties estimate the number of first-time voters who have registered for the 2018 elections at about 700,000 — approximately 20% of the voting population. The electoral law under which the 2018 election will be conducted has changed Lebanon’s majoritarian system to a proportional one, raising hopes that the vote will bring fresh blood to parliament.

The message that Take Action is passing along is that, regardless of political affiliations or preferences, “the youth should be active members in the society,” Halawi said.

Since it began in December, the campaign’s activists have travelled across Lebanon to raise awareness among first-time voters and deliver necessary information regarding elections.

“We went to the different regions several times, asking questions such as ‘Do you know about the new electoral law?’ ‘Are you going to vote or no and why?’,” Halawi said. She noted that more people were persuaded to vote, although at the beginning they said: “Why should I vote? What difference would it make?”

Campaigners, who stress they are neutral and not collaborating with any political party, also had mock elections in universities, festivals, concerts and pubs, quizzing young people on their preferences and approach to the polls.

On March 28, at a free concert organised by Take Action at a nightclub in Beirut, the audience, made up mostly of 21-30 year olds, was asked to choose between three electoral options — “I am going to vote,” “I am not going to vote” and “I do not know.”

“The response was positive. The list that won was the ‘I am going to vote’ list, which could be a sign that our campaign is succeeding,” Halawi said.

While young attendees were dancing and buying drinks at discounted prices, Take Action’s thought-provoking slogans were splashed over a giant screen between songs. “Just vote,” one slogan read, while another said “Every Saturday there’s a party but not every Sunday are there elections.”

A survey of the attitudes of first-time voters, conducted by Statistics Lebanon on behalf of the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung political foundation, indicated that 76% of respondents said they intend to vote, 16% said the election is useless and 9% claimed the results are predetermined.

The study sampled 1,200 people equally distributed across gender and covering all Lebanese governorates and socio-economic groups. It indicated that 35% of respondents said that casting their votes is a national right and duty, 19% wanted to express an opinion and 7% said they are voting to improve the situation in the country.

Despite criticism against the alleged corruption of traditional sectarian political parties, the young voters’ choices are influenced by sectarianism, said Khalil Toubia, programme manager at Konrad Adenauer Stiftung.

“We found out from the survey that young Lebanese voters mostly reflect the divisions within the society. They are a mirror of the political scene,” Toubia said. “We do not see any particular change coming from the youth but they really want to vote this time and most of them have already made their choices as to whom they are going to vote.”

While Take Action is mobilising first-time voters to cast their vote, political groups, especially those forged from the civil society such as LiBaladi (For My Country) are also running a dynamic social media campaign and youth events to attract a younger tech-savvy crowd.

“Come dance and support people who are hopeful that change is still possible!” said the announcement of the Dance LiBaladi fundraising party on April 20. With some of the most popular artists in Beirut’s nightlife scene in its lineup, the event sought to cement the party’s reputation as a hip, progressive choice.

In addition to being a campaigner for Take Action, Halawi, 30, is also a first-time voter. “No candidate in my (electoral) district represents me,” she said, “Nonetheless, I am going to vote by tossing a blank vote, just to exercise my right.”