BEIRUT: The turnout might be small, and there are some undeniable glitches, but the new initiative to get Lebanese expatriates voting could be a meaningful step forward in electoral reform.
“I think this is important for the simple reason that a lot of young people left the country because of socio-economic policies they’re not happy with, and they should have a say in the policies of the country,” said Nadine Moawad, an activist who is part of the Civil Campaign for Electoral Reform. “There’s no reason not to get eligible voters to register.”
Over four years after the law was finally passed in 2008, voters are finally able to exercise their right to vote absentee in elections from their country of residence. The new law has the potential to give a voice to a substantial expatriate community of Lebanese throughout the world.
However, whether due to lack of publicity, a confusing registration procedure or a lack of interest, of the 700,000 Lebanese expatriates who are qualified to vote, only a small number registered before the Dec. 31 deadline for the elections that are scheduled to take place in mid-2013. The final number of expatriates registered to vote totaled 10,012, according to the Foreign Ministry.
The country with the highest number of Lebanese expatriates registered to vote is Australia with 3,813, followed by France with 1,057, the United States with 630 and the United Arab Emirates with 536. In other countries across Europe, Latin America and Africa with large Lebanese expatriate communities, small numbers of citizens registered at their local embassies. But their votes will not be counted, as Lebanon’s electoral rules require a minimum of 200 registered voters per country.
One of those prospective Lebanese expatriates who hoped to cast his vote from his residence in Ghana was Mustapha Hamoui, author of the popular blog Beirut Spring.
He wrote an enthusiastic post last May with a step-by-step guide on how to vote from abroad.
The following October, shortly after initial numbers of registered voters – 3,009 at that point – were released by the Foreign Ministry, he wrote another post entitled “About that Expat Voting ‘Scandal,’” in which he questioned how an expatriate community of millions could only have several thousand voters. When he went to the embassy to try to register, he understood why the turnout had been so low.
“I actually didn’t end up registering,” said Hamoui, who initially decided to register after getting a text message from his embassy in early 2011, when there was a surge of publicity about the newly passed law. “I took the paperwork from the embassy with the intention of filling them out. I wanted to register my family members too, but in order to register to vote you need to have an ‘embassy file’ – which effectively amounts to a lot of paperwork. None of my family thought it was worth the effort because of the uncertainty around the election law.”
Hamoui believes that other potential voters felt discouraged by the bureaucracy and the fact that voting absentee from abroad forfeits the option to do so in Lebanon. He added cynically that “many voters are holding out for political zaims [tribal leaders] to buy them tickets before the elections.”
He said he didn’t make any official complaint about the process because for him it was like any other Lebanese bureaucracy he had experienced.
“Because of the doubt and uncertainty about the integrity of the elections and the value of their votes, people aren’t getting bothered,” Hamoui said.
Similarly, for Nadim Shehadi, a Lebanese academic based in the United Kingdom, where there are a total of 91 registered voters, the process for registering to vote proved too confusing and cumbersome.
“I think the expat voting idea is a bit of a fiasco,” he said. “There have been very few registrations at embassies, and I am not sure that the embassies have the capacity. I did not register myself because the circular said that my name would be struck off the list in Lebanon if I do. Then I was told that it was not true.”
In the end, he said, “it was confusing and too much trouble to consider.”
For Joe Manok, a New York resident who works as a fundraiser for the American University of Beirut, the process of registering to vote was relatively straightforward.
“The process was really simple. I downloaded the form online, and the consulate was really forthcoming in advertising.” However, one stipulation he found to be a bit rigid was having to register six months in advance, which he thought might be difficult for many Lebanese who might be in the process of moving.
A once contentious issue, expatriate voting is one of the few pieces of electoral reform pushed for by activists that actually became a reality in Lebanon. Other reforms activists continue to push for include proportional representation, lowering the voting age from 21 to 18 and guaranteeing access to polling stations for disabled voters.
Haitham Jomaa, general director of the department of immigrants at the Foreign Ministry, said he was pleased with the results of the expatriate voting registration because voters were “exercising their freedom to vote.”
The low turnout for voter registration has sparked debate about the resources used for something that appears to enjoy minimal support abroad. But activists say this is all the more reason to hold this up as an example of a small success that will garner more participants with subsequent elections.
Yara Nassar, executive director of the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections which administers the Civil Campaign for Electoral Reform, notes, “This is the first time this is happening. When people see it, they’ll be encouraged to register and vote the next time.”