BEIRUT: History will be made Friday as Lebanese expatriates in the Arab world head to the polls to take part in the country’s parliamentary elections from abroad.
Over 82,970 voters with Lebanese roots registered to vote in this year’s elections – the first since 2009. Those in Arab countries, numbering 12,615, will be the first to cast their votes, with polls opening Friday at 6 a.m. Beirut time.
A statement issued by the Foreign Ministry Thursday said Cairo would be the first city in the Arab world to witness the “historical voting” by Lebanese expats who have registered to take part in the polls in six states across the region: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman. Voting will go on until 11 p.m. Beirut time in Egypt.
The second phase will take place Sunday in 33 countries and will open at midnight Beirut time Saturday. This round of voting will start in Australia and end at 8 a.m. Monday, when polling stations on the West Coast of the United States close. Australia is home to the largest number of expat voters at 11,826, followed by Canada and the U.S.
Overseas voting will be broadcast live throughout the expat voting period, from all of the polling stations across the world, via an operations room the Foreign Ministry has established at its headquarters in Ashrafieh.
Local and international media will be able to follow developments in real time as a result of this broadcast mechanism.
While apparently welcomed by overseas voters, the new element of the vote law – long called for by mainly Christian parties – stirred controversy amongst politicians. Some sides have criticized the transparency in the overseas voting process.
The EU Election Observation Missions will join local and other international election monitors on May 6 in Lebanon, but will also for the first time be observing at polling stations abroad. Observers will be present in 10 European countries on April 29. The EU EOM was invited to observe elections in Lebanon in both 2005 and 2009 and began the mission for this year’s election at the end of March. One of the key recommendations after the 2009 elections was the addition of expatriate voting, according to Jose Antonio De Gabriel, deputy chief observer of the EOM, who was also part of the mission in 2009.
“For us it’s too early to say what’s going to happen. ... What I can tell you is that we will be extremely careful in the observation in 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 [from the overseas polling station to Lebanon,” De Garbiel told The Daily Star in a recent interview.
While some political parties inside Lebanon await positive results from supporters abroad, Hezbollah has said it deems the mechanism unfair. Suffering from crippling financial sanctions, mainly from the United States, supporters of the group previously told The Daily Star that they would not vote for fear of being tracked by foreign security officials. Moreover supporters of the Iranian-proxy in Lebanon are not afforded the same opportunities as other Lebanese parties to campaign abroad. The group’s leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah made this clear during a speech last week where he noted that Hezbollah went ahead on agreeing with the new law since it was deemed by Christian parties as a chance to increase their representation in Parliament. Echoing Nasrallah’s claims, his deputy, Sheikh Naim Qassem told The Daily Star Thursday that the law wasn’t fair. “Honestly, we agreed on the expats voting to go along with our allies and in order [for others] not to say that we are monopolizing the laws according to our direct interests and also in order to not to go into the Muslim-Christian calculations. So we considered that our agreement on the expats voting was a national favor for our allies first and second for the Lebanese reality,” he said.
“If you want to look into it, you will find out that we are at a disadvantage with the new expats voting because there is no parity in the electoral [promotion] and we can’t communicate with the voters in a number of areas in order to inform them about our electoral programs.” He said voters in some countries don’t dare to vote in the ballots.
“But in our evaluation of this experience, we don’t feel that it is dangerous and wasn’t a major concern maybe because of the limited number [of voters], but this should be fixed in the future,” Qassem said, in reference to Hezbollah’s supporters abroad limited by fear of sanctions.
The Interior Ministry Thursday launched a website for voters to locate the polling centers where they are eligible to vote. All voters, including expats voting from abroad, can go to www.dgps.gov.lb and enter the required information, including their registration number, to find out where to vote.
Results from this weekend’s voting will not be known or published until the general parliamentary elections are completed May 6. After the completion of voting abroad, the ballots will be sealed inside a box with red candlewax and shipped to Lebanon via DHL. Up until the general elections, the ballots from abroad will be stored in at Central Bank’s headquarters.
Also Thursday, President Michel Aoun informed ministers at Thursday’s Cabinet session that he had requested a public holiday from May 4 to 7, “to facilitate the electoral process.” Many schools will be used as voting stations throughout the country and the sorting of votes along with celebrations could extend into the day after voting. – Additional reporting by Susannah Walden