As the Lebanese population went to the polls on May 15, several observers noted a significant number of violations of the electoral law, potentially affecting the accuracy and respect of the legislative elections.
On his way to his polling station in Yarin, a village in southern Lebanon, Hussein Hamoud, a 35-year-old social media manager, noticed hundreds of cars queued and waiting for gasoline. This situation is reminiscent of the fuel shortages that the country experienced last summer, but which can be explained by another reason on the Election Day.
“All these people are waiting to fill their tanks with the political parties’ coupons in exchange for their vote. Here, nobody hides from vote-buying, which is a recurrent practice in Lebanon during elections time,” said Hamoud.
Vote-buying for cash or food
With the economic crisis that has gripped the country for over two years, a large part of the population has become impoverished and more dependent on traditional political parties. In one of its latest press releases, the World Bank accused the country’s political elite of deliberately orchestrating the economic depression by taking over the state and living off its economic rents.
For Aly Sleem, director of the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections (LADE), an organization that monitored the Lebanese election, the establishment and, to a lesser extent, emerging political groups have taken advantage of the economic crisis. With the collapse of public institutions, political groups offer services to the population in exchange for their electoral support. Unlike in 2018, when vote-buying was using cash, the traditional political parties now provide medicines, food, and other necessities.
According to the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), people who suffered in Lebanon doubled from 42 per cent in 2019 to 82 per cent today, making the population even more vulnerable. In the largest city of Sour, where yellow and green flags affiliated with the two Shiite parties Hezbollah and Amal dominate the streets, Hamoud saw the impoverishment of the population and the buying of votes with essential resources linked to it.
“The fact that people struggle daily to survive helps the traditional political parties in their election campaign. The night before the elections, we could see the political parties distributing food boxes, trying to convince the inhabitants to vote for them. On the day of the elections, they distributed money to citizens in front of polling stations. It ranged from a few dozen dollars to several hundred, depending on the economic status of the people.”
Although detrimental to the democratic process, this practice is, however, legalized by the Lebanese electoral law. Article 62 states that candidates or institutions owned or managed by candidates or parties can provide gifts and donations with consistent identical amounts and quantities on a regular and consistent basis for at least three years before the campaign period are free to continue to do so.
People involved in the elections distinguish between the Lebanese electoral law that does not allow equal opportunities for all candidates and the international standards of free and fair elections. In several cases, some traditional political parties disregard the election law by breaking the secrecy of the vote.
“Some of the polling workers would even go with the candidate to vote, pretexting that they could not read or that some people were too old to understand what to do,” Hamoud claimed, adding that he had directly witnessed this while waiting to cast his vote.
When traditional political parties feel threatened by the potential outcome of the election, they can go further and change ballot boxes and replace votes with fakes that skew the result in their favor. It’s claimed that Hezbollah delegates were placing ballots in envelopes at a polling station in the Hermel sub-district of Bekaa III after the closure of polling stations.
A system of political intimidation
In addition to increased clientelism and a vigorous crackdown on electoral law, hate speech campaigns and misinformation also marked the electoral process. Ayman Mhanna, director of the freedom of democracy organization Samir Kassir Foundation, tracked the use of electoral armies by traditional parties such as Hezbollah, the Lebanese Forces, and the Free Patriotic Movement to influence the elections in their favor.
“Supporters of these political parties use astroturfing to flood social networks with content that makes voters believe they hold the majority opinion. Several studies have shown that this represents a major manipulation of public opinion as no one likes to be on the losing side,” he claimed.
“I am not surprised by the undemocratic practices of the traditional political parties that have had the same leaders for the past thirty years and are undemocratic by definition. We cannot expect any other behavior from them,” he added.
On Election Day, the members of the various monitoring missions have suffered from a culture of intimidation. With the emergence of an opposition challenging the status quo in the wake of the October 2019 mass protests, online hate campaigns turned into intimidation and reportedly physical violence against candidates who claim to be independent.
Hamoud recalls the assaults that broke out in the town of Sarafand when supporters affiliated with the political party Amal, according to witnesses there, beat up candidates who wanted to announce the electoral list “Together for Change.”
“Our observers in the southern district, as well as in Baalbek-Hermel, and Saida, were harassed by the traditional political parties. Some were even beaten or slapped and had to leave the polling stations,” Hamoud told Al Arabiya. “Our inability to monitor certain regions and the fact that voters were sometimes under significant pressure lead us to raise questions about the accuracy and respect of the process.”
Similarly, five of the association’s observers were not allowed to monitor the second round of counting inside the primary registration committee stations of Haret Hreik, Mazboud, and Beirut.
In addition to vote-buying practices and increased intimidation and threatening speeches, the official Lebanese Election Supervisory Commission also monitored at least 324 cases of breaches of electoral silence during voting. In its latest statement, it noted that “On Sunday, May 15, there was a very large number of violations of electoral silence by all the media, candidates, lists and political parties.”
Hope for positive changes
Despite all the severe violations of the election law (estimated by LADE to be as many as 3,600), there were signs of change. For example, Mhanna noted a broader representation of candidates appearing on national television stations, including LBCI, MTV, and Al Jadeed. Most TV appearances were paid for, which favored better-funded candidates.
Significantly, the quality of debates had improved, with pundits taking a much more in-depth look at political issues while ensuring the integrity of the information. Despite these improvements, the media still fell short of international standards for fair and equal access to all candidates and parties.
In Beirut, Hamoud carefully analyzes the election results after voting in his village.
“I’m quite happy with the results because I’m starting to see a glimpse of change in the country. People who have been members of parliament for the last few decades have not been elected for the first time.”
“Independent candidates managed to get elected in many places that were strongholds of the traditional political parties, even though they were violating the electoral law. I can’t imagine what the result would have been if the electoral law had been respected.”