Lebanon News

Election watchdog warily eyes May contests

Numerous candidates and election campaigners, parties and lobbying groups are in the midst of final preparations for the upcoming municipal elections set for next month. One of the groups readying for the contests is LADE, the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections.

Since its founding in 1996, the association has monitored all elections that have taken place in the country. As a part of this task, LADE also observes whether election and vote-counting procedures are followed and publishes reports in local newspapers concerning any fraud or cheating that is found.

LADE also recently started an awareness campaign and has begun to focus efforts on marginalized groups - especially women and youth - in order to empower them to participate in the elections as voters or candidates. LADE also published a book that provides a detailed overview of the shortcomings of the Lebanese electoral system as well as proposals for gradual reform within existing law.

As it currently stands, LADE is the only monitoring body in Lebanon watching election procedures. "One of our main concerns is to encourage gradual changes, rather than (cause) a shock to the system," said Ghassan Makarem, secretary general of the association. "We look at points that are discriminatory or that hinder democratic developments. We want to propose concrete changes."

LADE has developed six major reform suggestions that focus on several problem areas, including one proposal that addresses a law prohibiting government employees from running as candidates. The current law suggests that such candidates might misuse their position for their election campaign. Professors from the state-run Lebanese University are among the groups prohibited from running for office. "I can't see how university professors could misuse their posts for the elections," Makarem said. By excluding them, he added, Lebanon loses some of its most educated citizens.

Bankruptcy also excludes persons from being candidates, suggesting that only rich people can run for elections. Thus, when a candidate wants to run for a municipal election, for example, the person has to deposit LL500,000. For parliamentary elections, the sum is LL10 million -  something that would seem to discriminate against the vast majority of Lebanese who simply don't possess the necessary funds.

The legal voting age, at least 21 and not 18, is another point of criticism for the association. "Many candidates rely on young campaigners, but the campaigners are not allowed to vote," Makarem explained.

A third point of criticism is related to money, but this time with a focus on campaign spending. According to LADE's secretary, there are no limits on spending, nor are there laws to determine how the election campaign's funds are to be spent. As Makarem pointed out, the rules hurt candidates who are financially weak. "We suggest gradually lowering the amount of money that can be spent in a campaign," Makarem said.

"One of the major frauds in the elections has been the buying of votes," he explained. In the past, this has been done either directly by giving money to individual voters, or indirectly by providing services to certain voter groups. LADE has proposed a change of law that would disrupt this system.

Another critical issue for the group is the exposure of candidates in the media - an issue that, again, is related to money. "There are no regulations for electoral advertising," said Makarem, "so you can advertise as much and wherever you want," meaning that the financially strong candidates get more exposure. Also problematic, insofar as radio and TV are concerned, is the fact that these media belong to the major political players and are used by them for their election campaigns. "Opposition candidates or people from small parties have no chance of appearing on TV," he said.

LADE has proposed regulating the amount of money that can be used for advertising a candidate, and also has proposed allowing all candidates to appear on TV.

Of course, LADE also criticizes the election law itself and not just what it fails to cover. The association therefore favors a system that is feasible, meaning a mix of majority representation for small electoral districts and proportional representation for bigger districts, all while taking sectarianism into consideration. "In the long run, we favor the abolishment of sectarianism," Makarem pointed out, "but this has to be done gradually." Lists consisting of candidates from different sects would be one solution. In general, a proportional voting system would be a fairer representation of the population and could weaken the sectarian quota, Makarem said.

The association isn't happy with the Interior Ministry either, which has been in charge of the elections since 1996. "There is an obvious conflict of interest," explained one election observer, because the Interior Minister runs for election himself. "An independent body, consisting of representatives from civil society, political analysts and government officials would be much better," he added.

Among other election irregularities that LADE criticizes is the fact that there are, on occasion, improvised lists of candidates instead of official ballots. Moreover, voting boxes  disappear, and votes are sometimes not counted correctly. And computers aren't used for vote counting, either. "Many seats were won through cheating," Makarem said.

Despite all of the apparent problems, at the very least the association can monitor the voting process and vote counting during the upcoming municipal elections since LADE's volunteers will show up in all towns and villages to observe that rules are followed.

During the last few months, the association, in cooperation with two NGOs focused on women's issues, has specifically approached women in order to empower them as voters and candidates.

According to advocates, women are a marginalized group who often depend on the decision of the male head of the family to cast a vote. What's more, women are usually not taken seriously when they run as candidates unless they are "the relative of someone." As Makarem explained, "the municipal elections are based on patriarchal family lists, where women don't play a role."

Given the wealth of problems LADE has devoted itself to - as well as thorny cultural issues, such as the empowerment of women, that permeate Lebanese society - the association clearly has its work cut out for it now and well into the future.





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