International election observation missions must execute their work in line with a country’s constitutional provisions and electoral laws, and within international and regional democratic and human rights instruments, making the intervention necessary, especially in cases where people are victimized and living under dire conditions due to state failure, and where the course of electoral process seems to be at risk.
In Lebanon, the public generally does not trust authorities in charge of handling the electoral process, consequently, the availability of a neutral and independent observation body is essential. Yet, recommending international observation, without studying the political and social context, is fruitless because all aspects of social, economic, and political life are interrelated in Lebanon. We also recommend that international observation missions must issue periodic reports, both locally and internationally during electoral campaigns, highlighting violations committed by different actors and providing electoral knowledge and process to voters, and addressing the increased level of political clientelism that might affect voters’ behavior prior to elections.
Unlike 2018, where the EU mission barely addressed the problems in the electoral system, the sectarian discourse, the effect of clientelism on the electoral process, certainly on voter behavior, is crucial and needed. The role of international election observation in 2022 should go beyond covering occurrences, such as violence, to a more in-depth analysis of indications pertaining to the electoral process and to tackling the following:
- The legal framework regulating elections, especially of the electoral system: district distribution, preferential voting, the electoral threshold, and the impact on dynamics and equal opportunities for candidates.
- The general assessment of the electoral process vis-à-vis the performance of the managing body (Ministry of Interior).
- The performance of the Supervisory Commission on Elections (SCE) and its relation to management.
- The current deteriorating economic and financial situation with reference to the impact on voter behavior and clientelism.
Today, in light of the deterioration of social welfare, in addition to the meager public services, the escalation of political violence, and the absence of political will in managing state affairs, especially elections, the path that the elections take seems to be under threat and requires all of us to raise our voices.
Fueled by 15 years of political challenges, high public debt, huge deficits in the power sector, a monetary crisis, subsidized goods smuggling, and tax evasion undermined good economic governance and drove Lebanon’s dire economic crisis. It is no surprise the country is in decline on the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), having dropped five points since 2012 to 25 out of 100. While some politicians and public officials have been called before the Financial Public Prosecutor, following the October 2019 uprising against corruption, no new major corruption investigations have been initiated.
In addition, the destruction, injury, and terrible loss of life caused by the Beirut blast is another example of the systemic corruption that has plagued the country for many years. There are strong indications that negligence and corruption contributed to the disaster. Furthermore, persistent clientelism and nepotism are at the core of Lebanon’s political system. In a nutshell, corruption is widespread and permeates all levels of Lebanese society, which takes place in the absence of effective transparency measures, political integrity, and political will. Corruption has significant political ramifications, beyond the serious violation of democratic processes, such as the electoral process. The ballot box remains the most important signaling device in Lebanese politics. In light of Lebanon’s concurrent crises, the international community should pay close attention to how the path to elections develops.
Today, about two months before the parliamentary elections scheduled for next May 15, the performance of the political authority still raises a lot of confusion about the actual readiness of authorities to organize the elections at the required level. In addition to the failure to spend the financial appropriations of the Election Supervision Body to monitor electoral spending, electoral media and advertising, and the uncertainty that pervades the entire electoral process, there is frequent talks about obstacles and problems that hinder some logistical procedures, which puts the integrity and democracy of the electoral process as a whole at risk.
History of Elections in Lebanon
The country has extensive experience in parliamentary elections that have taken place since the 1920s. The only time elections were suspended was during civil war years. The last ballot was organized in 1972 before resuming the electoral traditions in 1992, three years after signing the Taif Agreement in 1989. Yet, the adoption of controversial electoral laws allowed the Syrian regime to consolidate its control on Lebanese politics. In 2005, after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, weeks of protests forced the resignation of pro-Syrian Prime Minister Omar Karami and his cabinet. The demonstrations, along with international pressure, drove Syria to withdraw from Lebanese territories putting an end to decades-long Syrian control over political figures in Lebanon. Syria completed its withdrawal on April 26, 2005, and on May 29, elections were held in the country’s four main regions over successive Sundays, resulting in an anti-Syrian opposition coalition winning the majority in Lebanon’s parliament.
Following a compromise reached in the Doha Agreement in May 2008 between the government and the opposition, a new electoral law was put in place and passed on September 29, 2008. On June 7, 2009, the Saad Hariri-led March 14th coalition won seventy-one seats in parliamentary elections, while the Hezbollah-led March 8th coalition won the remaining 57 seats. It is noteworthy that no candidates outside of these two coalitions won. About 54.8 percent of the 3.2 million eligible Lebanese voters participated in the elections. Parliamentary elections were originally due in 2013, yet disagreement over the electoral system resulted in the extension of the parliamentary term until late 2014. Again in 2014, deputies extended their mandate until June 2017, due to concerns related to the Syrian conflict. The parliament adopted a new electoral law that introduced proportional representation and preferential voting, and scheduled elections for May 2018.
International Observation Missions: 2018 Elections
The 2018 elections received significant attention from international missions because the law was put in force for the first time, and the elections took place after years of postponement and political deadlocks. These organizations and missions published their reports on the monitoring and analysis of the atmosphere throughout the electoral process, from the adoption of the new electoral law 44/2017, to the call of the electoral bodies on February 5, 2018, to the election campaigns of the candidates, and the election day assessment.
The European Union (EU) Election Observation Mission
The EU election observation mission usually provides a comprehensive assessment of the electoral process, according to international standards for electoral democracy. The size and role of the missions varies, depending on the main objectives of each mission. Since 2000, the EU mission deployed European observers to elections in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean. The EU mission observed the 2018 Lebanese parliamentary elections and issued its final report and recommendations.
The National Democratic Institute (NDI)
The Institute was founded in 1983 as a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization working to support the formation of democratic institutions and organizations to promote human rights through civil and political organizations, observing elections, promoting citizen participation, and improving openness and accountability. NDI deployed an international mission in Lebanon to assess the preparations for the elections on May 6, 2018. The mission included regional electoral experts from North Africa, Europe, and North America, and issued its final findings.
The Arab Network for Electoral Democracy (ANDE)
ANDE was established in 2009, following the observation of the Lebanese parliamentary elections, with the participation of a group of 37 Arab experts and observers from 17 Arab countries. Today the network is composed of 16 organizations from 13 Arab countries and focuses on democracy, political participation, human rights, transparency, women’s rights, civil rights, citizenship, and observing electoral process integrity.
In its overall assessment of the parliamentary elections, the EU mission found that, though the parties did not adopt a number of fundamental reforms, the elections were generally democratic and the mission considered the voting process by non-residents to be transparent, and found the electoral process administrators had performed their functions effectively and neutrally. The National Democratic Institute report stated the deciding voice in determining the credibility and legitimacy of the elections was that of the Lebanese people. However, the report found deficits in a number of cases that did not significantly affect the outcome of the elections. The ANDE mission report did not explicitly mention the non-democratic nature of the elections, however, it did link the ministers’ elections candidacy phenomenon, including direct officials of the electoral process, to the integrity and transparency of the electoral process, especially the absence of the principle of equal opportunities, conflicts of interest, and the potential for the office to abuse electoral processes.
Nevertheless, the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections (LADE), an independent nonprofit, civil-society organization focusing on ensuring democratic electoral processes since 1996, concluded the 2018 elections were undemocratic for several reasons: the votes were not free but rather shackled to clientelism; the electoral law did not equate voters and candidates (with respect to the electoral system, districts, the value of the vote, the regulation of expenditures, etc.); and the election administration was not neutral, where 17 nominated government ministers managed the election in the absence of an independent electoral administrative body. LADE also stated the electoral practice widened the inequality gap between voters and candidates through material and moral pressure exerted on the voters. After LADE’s inspection, the official results announced 479 expatriate polling stations were deemed invalid, in addition to other malpractices detailed in the LADE report, that, when taken collectively, led to considering the elections undemocratic. LADE also monitors all types of elections to make sure no one is breaking the law. The NGO officially reported that over 7,000 violations occurred during parliamentary elections.
In this context, not all observing missions addressed the political context in their assessment of the electoral process in terms of the size and number of electoral districts and preferential vote. Regarding the electoral campaigns and election day, not all missions addressed the subject of sectarian discourse in detail, and senior candidates giving in-kind and monetary aids voter-lists during that period, as well as electoral bribery.
LADE’s Findings: 2018 Elections
LADE criticized the mechanisms for the adoption of the new electoral law, which were not participatory, since not all parts of the law were discussed at constitutional institutions and civil society associations did not participate in the discussion. This led direct stakeholders to adopt the law without national consultative mechanisms, and so the law was a result of understandings and quota-sharing, which largely guarantees the reproduction of the same political figures.
Lebanese decision-makers have adopted a new electoral law based on a proportional system, which LADE has always referred to as one of the voting mechanisms that contribute to correcting the imbalanced representation in Lebanon. However, this law has distorted the proportionality effect in different ways. First through limited and uneven electoral districts with respect to the number of seats. These distributions were applied without an objective and standardized context. Second, the new law adopted preferential voting, which turned electoral competition into individual battles between members of the same list, instead of a competition between the lists, based on their political, social, economic orientations, and electoral programs.
According to LADE, the most important issue undermining proportionality of this law is the electoral threshold. As the law specifies in Article 98, each list should exceed a certain threshold equal to the electoral quotient to obtain a seat. This means that the threshold could vary between one district and another. The variation in the size of the districts and the electoral quotient led to differences in calculating the threshold between one district and another, causing a problem in the value of the vote of each citizen and in the value of the seats.
In addition, LADE stated the new law did not include crucial reforms, such as lowering the voting age, voting for military personnel, voting for naturalized citizens, and quotas for women. Of course, LADE had a comprehensive explanation in the chapter on electoral expenditure, characterized by raising the limit of expenditure, permitting the purchase of tickets for expat voters, and not developing financial transparency mechanisms. LADE also discussed the positive points of the law related to Lebanese voters residing outside the country, the adoption of official pre-printed ballots, and SCE sustainability and the slight expansion in its powers.
There was consensus between the mission reports on the positive aspects of some of the electoral reforms stipulated in the new electoral law, such as the proportional system, the expatriate vote, and pre-printed ballots. However, the law did not meet their expectations, which deemed some of these electoral reforms were not implemented, such as the application of the proportional system with district size set forth in the law with the adoption of the sectarian system, the preferential vote, and high threshold—all factors that nullified the effectiveness of positive proportionality. The reports also considered that the law was deficit in not giving the SCE greater powers, seeking to improve women’s representation, or lowering the voting and candidacy age.
According to the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), election observation is:
“The purposeful gathering of information regarding an electoral process, and the making of informed judgments on the conduct of such a process on the basis of the information collected, by persons who are not inherently authorized to intervene in the process, and whose involvement in the mediation or technical assistance activities should not be such as to jeopardize their main observation responsibilities.” (IDEA, 2002, p. 10)
In other words, observing the act of collecting information and expressing an opinion is based on the information collected, with reference to precise legislative and regulatory instruments within the framework of the specified electoral process.
Observation Mission Importance for the Lebanese Scenario
Today, in the middle of the ambiguity pertaining to all aspects of social, political, and economic life in Lebanon, the path to elections is critical. In general, election observation is a tool for improving overall election quality. In this context, International Observation Missions are crucial for elections to be carried out under an international umbrella.
Having effective International Observation Missions builds public trust in the honesty of the electoral process, especially in the Lebanese political scene, which is characterized by corruption. Missions can also prevent manipulation and fraud, and expose such issues when they do occur. Following elections, reports and recommendations by international observation missions can lead to changes, improvements, and mitigation measures in national law and practice. However, it is crucial to reconsider the monitoring methodology of the international missions: clientelism is increasing as the economic and financial situations deteriorate, and vote-buying is penetrating the Lebanese context in the form of financial aid and services. The latter is not considered bribery, according to Article 62 of the current 44/2017 electoral law.
As mentioned before, nepotism and favoritism characterize the political and social Lebanese environment. International missions are considered to be neutral and do not have any interest with any political party or newly emerging political group. The state is bankrupt and needs technical and financial support provided by these missions to undergo elections, amidst Lebanon’s long history of public corruption, where spending on observation is much needed. The current system and authorities are hugely mistrusted, including official bodies responsible for preparing the electoral process, such as the Ministry of Interior, the municipalities, and the Ministry of External Affairs. In this context, we need an independent electoral management body to restore peoples’ faith and trust in the electoral process and call for international observation not for international supervision. Because international supervision (requested by a few party leaders) will surely affect Lebanon’s sovereignty. International supervision allows different international stakeholders to interfere in all aspects of elections, including the electoral law and the electoral process. On the other hand, proper international observation that tackles both the electoral process, months prior to the elections and on election day, is fundamental for the following reasons:
- Disseminating international standards and good practices for free and fair elections.
- The presence of international observers helps deter attempts to disrupt or tamper with the process.
- In situations of conflict or in countries experiencing crisis, as in the Lebanese context, the presence of international observers can, to some extent, prevent violence and intimidation.
- The presence of international observers may reinforce the credibility and legitimacy of the electoral process.
- The presence of international observation missions can prevent some violations committed by candidates, parties, and groups.
How representatives are elected is of paramount importance in exercising sovereignty. Having a neutral body watch over the credibility of the process is fundamental to guaranteeing proper and legitimate sovereignty. To this end, election observation missions play an important and neutral role in objectively evaluating electoral processes, which constitute the ideal means of selecting legitimate representatives in a state.
We also believe that it is recommended that International Observation Missions issue periodic reports to both local and international communities during electoral campaigns, highlighting violations committed by different actors, and providing electoral knowledge and process to voters.
IDEA. (1997). International electoral standards: guidelines for reviewing the legal framework of elections. Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA). https://www.idea.int/publications/catalogue/international-electoral-sta…