SUN 21 - 4 - 2019
Apr 28, 2018
The Daily Star
EU election observers on site for historic Lebanon expat vote
Susannah Walden| The Daily Star
BEIRUT: As Lebanese expatriates in Europe head to the polls Sunday to participate for the first time from abroad in Lebanon’s parliamentary elections, EU Election Observation Mission personnel will join them to monitor the historic vote. Giving more than 82,000 registered Lebanese voters abroad the opportunity to take part in the elections was one of the key recommendations made by the EU EOM after the last parliamentary elections were held in 2009, deputy chief observer Jose Antonio De Gabriel told The Daily Star in a recent interview.
The expat vote started in six countries in the Arab world Friday and will continue on the 29th in Europe, Australia and the U.S., among others. Election Day in Lebanon is May 6.
“For the first time in the EU missions, we are going to observe the out-of-country voting. Why? We think it’s very important,” De Gabriel said. “As controversial as [the expat vote] is ... we cannot forget the fact that there is a huge Lebanese diaspora which has not cut links with the country ... so they are an important force,” De Gabriel noted.
Overseas voting has been dogged by controversy. Some accusations are aimed at certain parties – mainly Christian, claiming they would have an outsized benefit from the addition of new voters; some focused on protection of the ballots.
On the latter, De Gabriel said, “it’s too early to say what’s going to happen. ... We will be extremely careful in the observation of the packaging procedures of the envelopes where they’re carried, where the votes are transported, because there are a series of safeguards that have to be implemented in order to minimize or to avoid the risk of manipulation during the transport.”
“We cannot travel with the ballot papers in the hold of the planes,” he joked, “but what we are going to do is carefully observe that these safeguards are applied at origin ... and also that these safeguards are still in place when they’re reopened here in Beirut and transported to the registration committees for the counting.”
After observing the elections in 10 European countries, those personnel will join their colleagues in Lebanon for Election Day itself, where over 100 observers will be posted in and around polling stations in all 15 major and 26 minor districts. “What they do is observe to see what happens, talk to the voters and try to understand what’s going on without interfering, of course,” De Gabriel said. “With all these impressions, what we do is we create a representative sample of the polling stations that are representative of the whole country and ... try to make a ‘photo’ that covers all the aspects of the election.”
De Gabriel emphasized that they are not just focusing on Election Day. The first group of the mission’s analysts arrived on March 27 and has been “covering all aspects that are relevant for elections,” including a comprehensive analysis of the political framework and the performance of the electoral authority, as well as media monitoring “to assess the level of pluralism, access of the different candidates, tone, etc.” Meeting with candidates and voters across the country has also been fundamental to their work. “It gives us the tone. ... They are very open. So far we have very good access and cooperation.”
With the information collected before, during and after the elections, the mission will produce a preliminary report a few days after the vote and a full report around two months later that will include new recommendations.
Some recommendations may be reiterated, however, particularly pertaining to the political participation of women. Lebanon’s 128 seat parliament includes only four women. “We recommended some positive action, we know that there have been draft laws that tried to introduce quotas but it hasn’t happened. But for us it’s a major area of concern.” De Gabriel also addressed the issue that Lebanese women cannot pass on their nationality to their children, which he described as “discrimination from the beginning of life,” and the requirement of women to vote in their husband’s ancestral villages.
A very positive development in the new law, De Gabriel said, was the introduction of pre-printed ballots. “In the past it was frankly very easy to trace votes and to know who had voted for whom. The fact that this will be much harder now ... gives an additional amount of freedom to the voter. Let’s see what happens, but in principle this is a fantastic development that we welcome,” De Gabriel said, adding that the previous system in Lebanon “was an international anomaly. Fortunately this has been corrected.”
He noted that the pre-printed ballots also contribute to discouraging vote buying, a long-standing issue in Lebanese elections that was noted by the EOM in both 2005 and 2009. The problem though is also linked to a larger question of regulating money in politics, De Gabriel said.
“We think that the financing of the campaigns is a particularly relevant issue in Lebanon. It has always been. ... This is also a very complicated issue, not only in Lebanon. But I think the right way to create a level playing field is to try to manage that.”
The playing field in these elections will be shaken up in a different way by the new proportional system that replaced the long-standing majoritarian one. Introducing proportionality was another EOM recommendation adopted in the new law passed in summer 2017.
“This is a challenging feature of the new system, as it introduces a level of uncertainty for some seats that were taken for granted in the past,” De Gabriel said.
He highlighted too that “the law is particularly complex ... it’s complex even for us and we are always working with elections.”
This, he said, made civic education on the subtleties of the new law “absolutely crucial.”
But that is not the only challenge for voters as they weigh their options ahead of Election Day. “If you put together [the preferential vote] with the proportional vote and the confessional system and also the variable architecture of the alliances ... then you have a quite complicated picture, but this is Lebanon,” De Gabriel said.
“It opens the way for new fields of uncertainty, but to some extent, elections are about uncertainty. At the end of the day, we will know the turnout and we will be in a position to compare ... with 2009, and it will be a way of measuring engagement and participation.”
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