Ice cream and the Lebanese elections

Conventionally, elections, at least in most democratic countries, are opportunities for change and renewal.
Sunday 25/03/2018
A supporter of Lebanon's President Michel Aoun with her face painted in the colours of the national flags attends a rally celebrating his election on November 6, 2016, at the presidential palace in Baabda. (AFP)
A supporter of Lebanon's President Michel Aoun with her face painted in the colours of the national flags attends a rally celebrating his election on November 6, 2016, at the presidential palace in Baabda. (AFP)

As Lebanon gears up for parliamentary elections May 6, the streets of the capital and country have been transformed into a picturesque gallery of posters and placards as veteran and aspiring politicians compete for office.

Alongside these colourful ads, a peculiar campaign is noticeable, one that uses a single-flavour ice cream cone to illustrate the mechanics of the new electoral law, demonstrating how all the voters’ choices have been included within a single list with no possibility of addition or omission of any candidate’s name.

Any confusion over the new system can be traced to its antecedents in Lebanon’s majority voting system, a tradition dating to the country’s first parliament in 1926. This majority system allowed voters, especially non-partisan individuals, to mix and match candidates and thus avoid taking sides. Under the current system, this is not an option. Each voter must cast a preferential vote, one that will most probably go to the candidate belonging to that voter’s sect.

Yet the real challenge for the Ministry of Interior and Municipalities (MOI), the body tasked with running the elections, goes beyond educating the masses on the new voting system and lies in ensuring that all sides abide by the regulations and, most importantly, the ones related to the spending and financing of their campaigns.

These regulations are paramount. They ensure the democratic playing field remains level so all candidates, especially independent candidates from outside the traditional political elite, have a chance of making it into parliament.

However, while such measures are a pillar of any successful electoral system, the culture of the Lebanese political elite tends to regard such stipulations as merely advisory, rather than the hard and fast rules they are.

Indeed, many doubt the state’s ability to impose these laws on most of the parties and their candidates, most of whom are already in power, taking part in the election.

Hezbollah and its allies recently used the historic Baalbek citadel as the venue to announce their list, a clear violation of Article 77 prohibiting the use of public spaces for electoral meetings or promotion. Many other candidates have used their positions or financial resources to campaign ahead of the vote, violations that, one assumes, will go unpunished.

For Ziad Abdel Samad, former secretary-general of the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections, an independent association that has monitored elections since 1996, concerns over the logistics of administering the election pale next to ensuring the impartiality of campaigns.

Despite the steps taken by the Ministry of Interior to ensure the transparency of the voting process, Abdel Samad asserted, “the fact that the minister of the interior and 17 other cabinet members are running for parliament voids the state’s political neutrality.”

Equally alarming, Abdel Samad said, is the manner Prime Minister Saad Hariri is using the Rome and Paris economic aid conferences, scheduled for next month, to promote his party’s standing in the elections.

While transparency is a concern, the logistics involved in the coming vote are also dizzying. Khalil Gebara, adviser to the MOI department charged with overseeing the vote, said the ministry’s overriding challenges lay in the logistical administration of managing the proportional voting system and the collection and tallying of ballots cast from abroad. Gebara said: “All other problems are an offshoot.”

Gebara said the proportional system necessitates the use of pre-printed ballots, which need to be delivered to 1,850 polling stations across Lebanon, a task easier to write than accomplish. The execution of the election itself stands to be a “a logistical nightmare, with 15,000 electoral officials and more than 25,000 law enforcement officers needed for Election Day alone, as well as 500 data entry clerks and 450 judges to tally the votes after.”

Compounding the election’s domestic challenges is the prospect of Lebanon’s 82,900 registered expat voters casting their ballots on April 27 and 29, one week before the home vote. “The ministry needs to supply these stations with the ballots and all the required voting resources and, more importantly, ensure the integrity of the process, especially that the counting will take place in Beirut,” added Gebara.

Conventionally, elections, at least in most democratic countries, are opportunities for change and renewal. However, in Lebanon, neither the political class nor the electorate seems to be hoping for all that much. The former merely wishes to stay in power at any cost while the latter hopes to capitalise on their vote in reaping as much reward from the system and the desperate politicians that control it.

True to the MOI’s ad campaign, Lebanon’s democracy is like ice cream, as appetising and unhealthy as it seems; the Lebanese will continue to vote their leaders into office and hope to reap what worldly rewards they can, worrying about the repercussions later.

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