BEIRUT: When Parliament voted on a new election law last month, reactions to the new legislation were mixed. Although some of the reforms proposed by the legislature's Administration and Justice Committee were adopted, others were not even voted on. One of these was the proposal to lower the voting age from 21 to 18.
Members of Parliament chose not to revisit Article 21 of the Constitution, which sets the age of suffrage in Lebanon at 21. The decision makes Lebanon one of fewer than 20 countries around the world that do not extend the right to vote to 18-year-olds, including Cameroon, Malaysia, Oman and Uzbekistan. Most countries around the world have set the age of suffrage at 18, and many are currently considering lowering their voting age to 21.
Campaigners complain that the voting age excludes a major portion of society from political participation, despite the fact that the age of civil responsibility is 18.
The campaign to reduce the voting age began in Lebanon several decades ago, according to Jamil Mouawad of the Youth Coalition for Electoral Reform.
"In the late 1960s, early 1970s, there were some voices calling for a lowering of the voting age," Mouawad said.
But back then, when a large number of countries were dropping their voting age to 18 - including the United States, the United Kingdom and France - the arguments against lowering the age of suffrage in Lebanon were different from those that are cited today.
"The reasons for rejecting the lowering of the voting age were not demographic or sectarian like today, but related to the lack of political awareness and political maturity," Mouawad said.
Oussama Safa, director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, explained that politics were different then.
"In the 1960s, parties were truly political, they had political agendas. The socialists were truly socialists, the liberals truly liberals," he said.
A second wave of pressure for reforming the electoral law came in the 1990s, after the 1975-1990 Civil War and the Taif Accord that ended it. IN 1997 several youth and civil society groups, backed by some MPs, launched the Campaign for Lowering the Voting Age, which called for the reform under the slogan "Young people: work, resist and vote."
"I was a student back then," said Said Sanadiki of the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections and the Civil Campaign for Electoral Reform (CCER). "It [the campaign] contained a coalition of civil society, NGOs, syndicates, political parties and universities. Everybody was taking part in this campaign because it [lowering the voting age] was not a very controversial issue," he said.
"We managed to get 108 signatures from parliamentarians and there was a draft law to change Article 21 of the Constitution to lower the voting age from 21 to 18," he recalled.
"But this draft law was never discussed in Parliament. As early as 1997, the 'invisible guard' over national unity prevented the draft law from being discussed in Parliament because if passed, it might disturb Lebanon's delicate confessional balance," he added.
Sanadiki said that some of the activists from the 1997 campaign now sit in Parliament - and reject calls to lower the voting age.
Today's campaigners say that Parliament's failure to discuss lowering the voting age during their session on the electoral law last month was not only a defeat for young adults, but also for reform and civil society in general.
"The Constitution has only been amended for non-reform purposes since the Taif agreement - that is for the extension of the presidential mandate," Mouawad said. "Personally I was hoping that this amendment [to lower the voting age] would be the first one in the second republic.
"Amending the Constitution would have been a big thing. This would have opened the door to other reforms, like, for example, civil marriage," said Mouawad.
However, many campaigners are still holding out hope that Parliament will lower the voting age before the next elections. While the old election law clearly stated that citizens must be 21 years old to vote, the new law does not specify a voting age.
"In the 2009 election law it is stated that the voting age is as indicated in the Constitution," Sandiki said.
"This is why we still have the opportunity to change Article 21 of the Constitution and lower the voting age prior to the 2009 elections," he added.
"We're now trying to put pressure on the MPs to change the Constitution," he said.
"We asked for a meeting with the interior minister, Ziad Baroud, to ask him at least to pass the proposal [of lowering the voting age] for vote to the Parliament," he added.
While Mouawad remains less than optimistic that the proposal will pass, he says it would be good to know which MPs would support such an amendment. "At least we as young people would like to know who among the MPs is against and who supports our proposal in order to know who is accountable," he said.
Sanadiki and the CCER, on the other hand, are pushing to implement all of the reforms that did not make it through Parliament. The CCER is also working with lawyers to draft a legal opinion about whether Lebanon's electoral law meets international human rights standards, Sanadiki said.