By Patrick Galey
BEIRUT: Activists staged what they promised would be the first of several protests Monday in a bid to pressure the government into adopting voting reform measures that have long been in the pipeline.
The Civil Campaign for Electoral Reform, joined by members of other pro-democracy organizations, gathered in Beirut opposite the Interior Ministry after direct negotiations with senior officials stalled.
“I hope that this today, which is the beginning of our taking to the streets, will begin to rattle some cages,” said Osama Safa, secretary general of the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections, one of the organizers of Monday’s gathering.
“Things are heating up and it’s about time that we heat up our action. It’s about time that we make our voices heard. Civil society has been taken for granted for too long, possibly because we are peaceful and we are trying to do this by dialogue,” he added.
The CCER accused politicians last week of insulting the intelligence of Lebanese voters by failing to adopt changes to Lebanon’s voting law, which have been discussed since the last round of parliamentary elections in 2009.
Among the reforms being pushed for, activists want future votes to be conducted under a proportional representation system, which would make for a fairer distribution of Parliament seats based on popular voting trends. In addition, civil society groups want a law including a lower voting age, a one-third quota for female candidates, pre-printed ballot papers and an independent committee to run elections.
“We have already prepared a draft law and we are still waiting for them to accept,” said activist Mariana Jabbour, 27. “I am not too optimistic because they [politicians] think in a different way and they only think of their own benefit. So it’s difficult to achieve everything we want, but we hope there will be some changes.”
Her brother Raji, 22, said that voters were fed up with being promised greater democracy.
“Every four years before an election politicians promise us a new law for our benefit but every year they lie. They only make their own profits. This time we have started earlier to guarantee they make these changes,” he said.
Last Friday saw a meeting of senior Maronite politicians at the seat of the Maronite patriarch in Bkirki to discuss potential electoral reforms. The leaders failed to agree on what voting system they would endorse and Safa said that politicians were not taking the issue sufficiently seriously.
“The political class still hasn’t reacted. They are stalling and being thick-skinned about this,” he said. “They are taking things behind closed doors and this is our main fear – that the law is just going to come out by surprise and sweep the rug from under our feet. We are trying our best not to make this happen.”
Demonstrators held up banners and distributed fliers advocating proportional representation and other mooted reforms as Army and Internal Security Forces personnel manned the entrance to the ministry building.
“We want this to be a strong statement that we are insisting on as democratic a law as possible, as we have been promised. We have been promised by the minister and other members of the political class,” Safa said.
Those gathered vowed that they would protest as often as necessary to push through sorely needed reform.
“If we don’t get [everything] we want this time, then next time for sure,” said Jabbour. “We will not stop.”