Voters and Reformists Face Obstacles in Leadup to Lebanon’s May Elections

Friday, February 11, 2022
Opinion by Steven Howard

The May 15 parliamentary elections in Lebanon are in danger of being delayed. This possibility led US Ambassador Dorothy Shea to clearly state to Lebanese lawmakers that “there is no wiggle room” on holding elections on time. ATFL’s position is that anyone who stands in the way of elections taking place transparently and on time should be sanctioned or face other penalties. So it is important to remind Lebanon’s leaders that the world is watching.  

However, at the recent ATFL-MEI policy brief rollout, Middle East Institute Vice President of Policy Brian Katulis made the point that this demarche is really the bare minimum. While having elections is an accomplishment in and of itself (especially in Lebanon when they have been delayed before), Katulis argued that the real challenge is not merely having elections, but “enabling the environment for elections.” He was absolutely right because the current environment is not friendly to voters nor is it conducive to giving newcomers an equal opportunity to campaign.

As Wael Taeb has written, a well-documented challenge that political parties have is coalition building. Many of the prominent opposition groups born out of the October 2019 demonstrations  have yet to come to an agreement on how they can build coalitions large enough to make a splash in parliament or how they can even fundraise and campaign. One challenge Taeb highlights is the challenges these groups have in reaching a consensus on who the “opposition” is. For example, how do resigned parliamentarians, political independents, and a range of new (and familiar) political parties from across the political spectrum learn to work together? Some groups, he notes, do not subscribe to the idea that the opposition should unite into a single coalition at all. Others, he and Ayman Raad note, refuse to consider their ideological opponents as part of the true “opposition.”

The opposition is not the only group struggling to come together. The departure of Saad Hariri from Lebanese politics will provide a crucial test for the Sunni community who were once united under the banner of his Future Movement (FM). While there is concern about the ramifications of this departure for Lebanese politics, Ibrahim Johari argues that these orphaned Sunni FM supporters are a clear and obvious bloc of voters that opposition parties can target.

For many of those who are challenging the status quo in the upcoming elections, they face many bureaucratic hurdles in order to organize and fundraise on a level to compete with the established players. Dana Hourany notes that Minteshreen, a leading opposition group born from the October 19 demonstrations, has yet to even receive its registration for the elections in May. They applied last June. 

Many of these newer political parties currently lack the necessary registration to both fundraise and campaign. Mark Daou of Taqaddom told Hourany that “[t]here are no employees in the Ministry of Interior to receive our papers, and they would tell you to not bother as there were already a ton of applications they had to go through first.” Hourany notes that Beirut Madinati waited for over three years to receive notification they were officially registered.

Hourany notes that such obstacles can be attributed to the fact that Lebanon has no law for political parties, instead relying on an Ottoman-era “Law of Associations from 1909,” and is circumscribed by an inefficient bureaucracy that is beholden to the existing political framework..

Sarah Ludwick, writing for the Tahrir Institute for Middle East policy, notes that candidates seeking a run for public office must pay a fee of $5,000, which is certainly an obstacle for potential independent candidates who are not wealthy. She notes that in the 2018 election, the current election law favored the establishment parties when it came to campaign finance and spending provisions (which she notes exceed $1.7 million in some constituencies). The Supervisory Commission on Elections (SCE), which is supposed to punish those who make campaign finance violations, itself must report to a government body composed of members of the very same political parties that would have made these violations. Johari notes that resigned members of the SCE have not been replaced nor has a budget been set for the commission.

Taking into account the analysis from Daou and Ludwick, it is clear that new candidates and political parties have the deck stacked against them. Importantly, the banks will not open new accounts for the aspirants, further blocking their initiative.

Dr. Elie Abouaoun of the US Institute of Peace makes the case that these difficulties are not technical, but engineered by politicians seeking to protect their own careers and self-interest.

As an alternative, he makes the case for an independent Electoral Management Body (EMB) that can “create a conducive environment for reform-minded candidates to be able to compete and win.” EMB’s are actually considered the most common model of election management globally. Such a body should be “politically independent, financially autonomous, competent, inclusive, transparent, accountable and have full authority over the electoral process.” The key element of this body, as opposed to the current SCE or other national commission, is that it would be internationally supervised. Otherwise, it could fall prey to the same forces of corruption that have polluted Lebanon’s current government. 

A notable example to look at is the EMB which was established in South Africa in 1994, the first elections after apartheid. They were able to successfully organize and implement internationally-recognized elections in less than four months with global support (including from USAID).

Something mentioned in both the ATFL-MEI policy paper and in Abouaboun’s writing is the significance of Mega-Centers. Under normal circumstances, it is difficult to travel across the country to one’s ancestral village to vote. Given the current economic crisis and fuel crisis, it will be expensive and logistically complicated for Lebanese to be able to go to their respective polling places. 

Voting should not be expensive or an endeavor that occupies one or more days away from one’s workplace or home. The current election monitoring body, the SCE, is currently lacking both personnel and funding just months away from a crucial election. That being said, it is also clearly not a politically independent or neutral body. The levels of corruption seen in Lebanese politics make  an EMB or serious international supervision essential for the upcoming elections

Campaign finance reform is desperately needed since the current system disincentivizes average Lebanese from presenting themselves as candidates. Relying on Ottoman-era laws and an inefficient bureaucracy is a massive obstacle to leveling the playing field for new political parties. Lastly, new political parties composing the opposition have crucial questions to wrestle with. The scales are already tilted in the favor of the establishment, even if they were to unite into a larger coalition. Are opposition parties and groups willing to unite together to stand as a feasible alternative to the status quo? In the meantime, the US and its allies must continue to leverage the Lebanese government to ensure these elections happen on time, fairly, freely, and transparently.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon, a non-profit, nonpartisan leadership organization of Lebanese-Americans. Photo by Susan Q Yin on Unsplash.