Victoria Yan| The Daily Star
BEIRUT: In Lebanon, the deceased temporarily come back to life – just in time for elections. Perhaps it was your grandma who missed the taste of fatteh on the day of the 2005 elections, or your father’s great grandpa, resurrected for a few more puffs of argileh before exercising his civic duty for the 2001 elections.
“It’s because of God,” Mounir al-Kayyal, a mukhtar in Beirut’s Rmeil said, acknowledging the issue with a laugh. “God loved them so they were sent back.”
While this urban myth is widespread, The Daily Star could not corroborate first-hand cases of identity theft of the dead to commit voter fraud – commonly done to boost votes for a political party in areas with small followings.
“Of course this happens,” said an elderly man, who preferred not to be named. “You hear it all the time, and it’s all because of corruption. What other explanation is there?” he added. “This is Lebanon after all.”
According to Kayyal, the phenomenon is, in fact, quite real and one of the many consequences of the country’s outdated and disorganized system of processing death certificates.
As a mukhtar, Kayyal is responsible for sending the completed death certificate forms to the Interior Ministry for administrative purposes.
From there, they are supposed to be sent to the Public Health Ministry for statistical purposes. However, an initiative to upgrade from a paper to digital system has yet to be actualized, stalling communication between the two ministries for years. As a result, many death certificates received by the Interior Ministry, have never reached the Public Health Ministry.
“When someone dies or gets married, their family register has to be updated. This shows who in the family is married to whom, who is still alive and who is dead,” Kayyal said. “When there is a death, you send the death certificate along with this register to a mukhtar.”
“But let’s say you live in Beirut, while your [ancestral] family is from Zahle. The mukhtar has to send these [two documents] to an Interior Ministry office in Zahle rather than the local one. Before, it was common that the family register would not be recorded by that office [if sent from another municipality]. They were usually forgotten about.”
This, according to Kayyal, would result in an incomplete death record, allowing votes from the deceased to slip through the cracks.
While it used to be a big problem, he said, tighter regulation has clamped down on the issue in recent years. Now, the family register includes an electronic chip of sorts, streamlining systemization.
“In Beirut, you don’t see this happening as much, but in remote areas, it could be possible.”
Omar Kabboul, the executive director at the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections, also confirmed this to be true, but dismissed it as an issue of the past, now resolved following changes in the electoral law of 2008.
“Before 2008, the [electoral identification cards] we used to vote with could be easily forged. It used to be really easy to change the photo, but this stopped after 2008 when the 2005 electoral law was adopted, as [we] were required to show either our national identification or passport [when voting],” Kabboul said.
However, Dr. Lina Oueidat, the National Information and Communications Technology coordinator, adviser to the prime minister and independent consultant for the Interior Ministry said this wasn’t the case.
“Regarding the question about people voting who are dead, [this] is not true, this statement is completely false,” she said.
“In fact all eligible voters’ lists are updated and published on a yearly basis on the Interior Ministry website over 50 consecutive days, making it accessible to the public eye, and for correction.”
Despite multiple attempts to get comment from the Interior Ministry, no response came before publication.
While fraudulent voting is one serious consequence of a poorly organized death certificate system, it is hardly the only one.
The system of processing death certificates – an essential tool for public health records and overall national certificates – is dysfunctional.
“Sometimes there is no cause of death or there is no signature,” Dr. Abla Sibai, professor of Epidemiology and Population Health at the American University of Beirut, told The Daily Star. “There is so much missing data that we need for public records.”
Oueidat agreed, noting that in her years of work, she had analyzed over 65,000 death certificates and witnessed “severe problems” in recording causes of death.
Death certificates were not introduced in Lebanon until 1924. In 1951, the document was updated following recommendations made by the United Nations and World Health Organization. Six years later, a small space was allocated on the paper to record the cause of death.
In 2002, Sibai published a bulletin in the WHO detailing the inadequacies of death certificates in Beirut, a small representation of a widespread issue.
According to Sibai’s research, half of the city’s death certificates collected between 1974 and 1998 were not certified by a physician. An even greater percentage lacked the proper documentation.
Despite her efforts to publicize this information, nothing has changed today. “Unfortunately, the issue has largely remained the same,” said Sibai, who is also the co-founder of Lebanon’s Center for Studies on Ageing.
With the majority of deaths occurring at homes, it is rare that a physician is immediately called upon to record the cause of death, Sibai added. Funeral plans take precedence and tend to delay any documentation for days, while commissioned autopsies are rare.
Commonly, a physician close to the family may be called upon to sign off on the death certificate despite never having examined the body.
In other cases, the neighborhood mukhtar may be called to the scene to sign the form. Despite having no medical background, the local official is legally authorized to do so.
Hasan Schuman, a mukhtar in Beirut’s Bashoura, recalled several times he was called upon to make house visits to record a death.
“Yes, of course. I would go to a house, see the body and write down the cause of death. But I also write that it is a mukhtar writing this and not a physician,” he said.
“You would be surprised to see what some of these cause of deaths are,” Sibai laughed. “It can be ridiculous, and even if they are recorded by physicians, there is barely any room to record the cause of death properly.”
Today, the certificate looks exactly the same as it has since 1967, in spite of much-needed reform.
“The Interior Ministry has been working closely with the WHO Regional Office to prepare new birth and death certificates,” Oueidat said, adding that the death certificate should come out in the next month.
But Kayyal disagrees.
“They’ve been promising us a new one for years. But now that it’s election season, we’ll see.”
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 23, 2017, on page 3.