The Argument

Lebanon’s hanging chads

Lebanon’s election outcome may depend more on the ballot papers than the votes cast on them.  By Brian D. Pellot On June 7, Lebanese voters will step into polling booths nationwide to choose between the Hezbollah-led opposition alliance and the incumbent majority coalition. But if balloting goes awry, they may not be choosing anything. Lebanese ...

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Lebanon's election outcome may depend more on the ballot papers than the votes cast on them. 

By Brian D. Pellot


Lebanon’s election outcome may depend more on the ballot papers than the votes cast on them. 

By Brian D. Pellot

On June 7, Lebanese voters will step into polling booths nationwide to choose between the Hezbollah-led opposition alliance and the incumbent majority coalition. But if balloting goes awry, they may not be choosing anything. Lebanese law provides ample opportunities for those in power to invalidate cast ballots.

What’s the problem? The country’s 2008 parliamentary election law seems reasonable enough: It requires voters to enter private booths, seal their ballots in official envelopes, slide them into transparent boxes, and dip their thumbs in indelible ink. But these cosmetic reforms designed to increase transparency have temporarily lulled voters and the media into complacency about a system that is still deeply broken and ineffectual.

Some issues with the election law are logistical in nature. One article, for instance, prohibits candidates from broadcasting anything that might trigger religious or confessional sensitivities, despite the fact that Lebanon apportions its parliamentary seats by religious sect. Another article declares that public institutions and schools may not be used for “electoral events,” overlooking the fact that voting inherently falls into this classification.

More troublingly, the law fails to address a primary source of electoral corruption that has plagued Lebanon for decades: the lack of an officially printed and standardized ballot for each district. In 2008, Lebanon’s parliament rejected reforms to implement such a ballot. Instead, the parties themselves create ballot sheets that list only the candidates they endorse. Ballot papers are often meticulously tailored, font size and layout carefully selected, as a means to encourage voters to vote with a party. Party agents monitor polling stations, oversee counting, and review contested ballots, facilitating the flow of cash bribes and intimidation. Forget what the law says — voting in Lebanon is rarely anonymous.

Voters who choose not to take party ballots are allowed to write the names of candidates they wish to elect on blank pieces of paper. But the 2008 law stipulates that any papers containing identifying marks (such as handwriting) will be considered spoiled — an inherent contradiction left up to the discretion of polling officials.

Two opportunities remain to salvage this flawed system before Lebanon descends into chaos and confusion at the polls. First, the Supervisory Commission on the Electoral Campaign can clarify these contradictions and discrepancies. However, if it fails to do so, the law states that the interior minister and municipalities must take over on behalf of Lebanese voters. He should issue a simple decree allowing voters to use uniform ballots that list all eligible candidates in each of Lebanon’s 26 electoral districts.

The law already mandates that a comprehensive list of candidates be posted in each voting booth. Voters could download their district’s list in ballot form from the Interior Ministry’s Web site and bring it, unmarked, into the polling booths to mark their decision in secrecy. This would offer voters the freedom to transcend political blocs when marking their choices and would greatly improve the transparency and anonymity of the electoral process.

For those voters who plan to submit a blank piece of paper indicating their lack of support for any eligible candidates, voting with a blank uniform ballot would allow them to symbolically state their dissatisfaction with the election law and support for the adoption of official ballots in future elections.

The only way to end the cycle of intimidation and the perverse incentives surrounding subsequent Lebanese elections will be to implement official government-issued ballots, as called for in the 2006 Boutros Commission’s draft law and more recently by international monitoring bodies. Allowing voters to use downloaded comprehensive ballots in this election will serve as a necessary first step toward reform. If Lebanese elections continue to operate without official ballots, all transparency reforms will be marginalized and voters’ fundamental democratic rights will remain jeopardized by political corruption.

Brian D. Pellot is a freelance journalist monitoring Lebanon’s parliamentary elections in Beirut.

Photo: JOSEPH BARRAK/AFP/Getty Images

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