Almost Fair Elections

After the vote: the Lebanese opposition questions neutrality of observing commissions

News | Linda Eid | July / August 2009

On Sunday, Jun. 7, citizens and international observers across Lebanon were focused on the parliamentary elections many hoped would bring badly needed change to the country.

This small republic of 3.8 million along the eastern Mediterranean coast, surrounded by Syria and sharing a narrow border with Israel to the south, has long been affected by international conflicts. It has been caught in the middle of U.S. and Syrian tensions and American/European interests in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At the same time it has been a major player in the Middle East beyond its size, playing a leading role in taking in 100,000 Palestinian immigrants, and is considered among Arab countries to be one of the most open to and cooperative with the West.

In this election, however, internationalism itself was called into question as Lebanese lost faith in the neutrality of election observers.


Following years of uneasy peace in the early decades after WWII, alternating with invasions by Syria and Israel, the country agonized through a devastating civil war from 1975 until 1990 during which at least 150,000 people died and hundreds of thousands more were wounded. At the same time in 1988, interim Prime Minister General Michel Aoun launched a war of liberation against Syria that ended with his exile in France and Syrian control of Lebanese politics despite UN resolutions.

It was not until 2005 following the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, that Lebanon ousted the pro-Syrian government in a peaceful "Cedar Revolution." On Mar. 14, 2005, the largest demonstration in Lebanese history led to the withdrawal of remaining Syrian troops and the dismantling of its intelligence stations, after 30 years of occupation. In July 2006, another war with Israel reopened the yet unhealed Lebanese wounds.

Since then, the country has been trying to solidify the democracy it aspires to be. However, the 2005 elections left two opposing political factions: the "14th of March" alliance, led by the slain prime minister’s son Saad Hariri, and the "Free Patriotic Movement," (FPM) aligned with Hezbollah and led by reformist General Michel Aoun.

A crucial crossroads

Thus, these elections were considered a crucial crossroads not only for Lebanon, but also for the greater Middle East, drawing media attention from around the world. They come about at a time where a number of geopolitical events are rising: the Iranian elections, the Syrian-American negotiations, the Saudi statement to the UN to lift restrictions on women, and most importantly, U.S. President Obama’s speech in Cairo followed by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s response. The Lebanese election results determine how the country would engage in the coming possible changes in the Middle East, in view of new American policy.

There was no radical change in the distribution of power in the parliament as a result of this election: the allegedly pro-West "14th of March" alliance now has 69 seats of a total of 128, while the opposition received 57 seats, an improvement over the 51 they earned in 2005. The remaining two seats went to independent candidates.

International observers

Fulfilling an earlier commitment, the European Union sent an Election Observation Mission (EU EOM), led by José Ignacio Salafranca (who had led the EU EOM in 2005) accompanied by observers from the Carter Center in Washington and the National Democratic Institute’s (NDI) Election Observer Delegation. When it was over, all agreed that the electoral process had been "fair and democratic," praising the government’s commitment to impartiality and extolling the efforts of the national security forces for maintaining order in spite of a high turnout.

Not everyone was so convinced.

"The international observers seemed to know who was going to win," Tony Moukheiber, chairman of FPM campaign, told The Vienna Review. "They just observed it happening."

The EU EOM disputed this analysis, saying they had no authority to intervene: The mission’s objectives were restricted to observing technical aspects of the elections, according to press officer Nuala Haughey in an interview with The Vienna Review.

"We were not in a position to give political analysis," she said.

More changes needed

Still, the international reports acknowledged that Lebanese standards need further improvement to reach international levels. There is still no independent board of elections nor pre-printed ballots, considered essential to avoid the disqualification of votes through technical errors. Although proposed by Interior Minister Ziad Baroud, along with absentee voting, all measures were rejected by the parliament – in a closed session where TV coverage was prohibited. The dismissal of pre-printed ballots was particularly a serious problem as this compromised voter anonymity and left plenty of room for vote-buying schemes.

Absentee voting was another key issue. The "14th of March" coalition "knew they had an advantage in the ability to import large numbers of Lebanese from outside the country" to pad the vote, said Moukheiber. According to a Jun. 3 article by the German weekly Stern, the Future Party, led by Saad Hariri, had arranged a prepaid trip for some 6,000 Lebanese from Hamburg alone and was buying votes for up to €1,500 Euros. Hundreds of millions of dollars were allegedly spent on buying votes in Germany, Canada, Australia, South America and West Africa. The Lebanese newspaper Al Safir revealed that among those who traveled back to Beirut to vote, some 94,000 favored the "14th of March," against some 25,000 for the opposition. Expats casting votes for the FPM also returned for the election, although there is no evidence that their presence was financed by the party.


Media and spending rules

There were other discrepancies in local and international reports, specifically regarding media rules and campaign spending. Many questioned the effect of Patriarch Sfeir’s election eve speech predicting a national decline if the opposition won. Media rules forbid any campaigning or speeches within 48 hours of the election. In campaign spending, the American magazine Newsweek declared that between the "14th of March" alliance and Saudi Arabian petrodollars, more had been spent on in this election than U.S. President Barack Obama had invested in his entire campaign – more than $715 million.

"The FPM election expenses reached around $6 million," Moukheiber asserted, "way below the $22 million allowed threshold for our 61 candidates." For all 128 candidates together, the amount allowed by electoral law would be $46 million.

Fraud also contributed heavily to the election results, according to Moukheiber.

"We expect an increase in the number of voters of 10 per cent every year, yet in the Maten region alone, we found an increase of 65 per cent." Moukheiber reported that the "14th of March" coalition not only imported voters but also transferred registers within cities to alter the balance of voters. "In Zahleh," he said, "some 12,000 registrations were relocated and in Beirut 60 families were registered in the same building."

In spite of everything, the parliament was unanimous in agreeing that outside of official complaints, they would not dispute the election results and would have every intention of cooperating in the national interest and regional stability.

"We hoped that this year’s missions would perform better than in 2005," Moukheiber admitted. Unfortunately, this did not happen.

"We were disappointed by their performance. We know that they cannot bring about change by themselves, but for their own credibility’s sake, they could report truth."

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