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Blank the ballot

by Rabih El-Chaer

Parliamentary elections in June 2013 will define both the ruling majority for the next four years and the identity of the future Lebanese president, and the Lebanese electoral law will play a crucial role in this process. But the country’s opposing political camps — the March 8 and March 14 coalitions — are not willing to risk any change in the balance between them. For this reason they are not likely to accept the proportional electoral system as it will open the door for independent candidates to take part in the elections, and this new blood would pose a serious threat to the established oligopoly in the Lebanese political system.

Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s government promised in a ministerial declaration shortly after taking office that the electoral law, which includes all the related reforms, would be effective one year before the elections. However, it was only sent to the parliament last month — 10 months before voting begins — meaning government is already in violation of this commitment. Furthermore, it is widely expected that Parliament will procrastinate in its review of the electoral law to use up time and make implementation of any reforms impossible before the election. For this reason we should not get our hopes up regarding electoral reform. Rather than presenting an opportunity for change, voting citizens will most likely be left with little choice but to reinforce the status quo.

Those of us campaigning within civil society understand the cynical game that is being played out before us and have therefore changed our strategies and priorities. There are other crucial reforms to the elections that should be implemented, whether they are instead of or in addition to the proportional electoral system.

For starters, an independent and permanent committee (IPC) that organizes and supervises elections needs to be established. It is disconcerting, but not surprising, that the draft law submitted by the Minister of Interior and Municipalities to the Council of Ministers, Lebanon’s cabinet, did not suggest the creation of an IPC. Without such a body, however, we should not accept the interior minister’s authority to conduct the elections, especially since he is a member of a monochromic government. The Civil Campaign for Electoral Reform (CCER) conducted a feasibility study that proved that there is still enough time to create the IPC if an honest will is expressed by the Council of Ministers and the Parliament.

We are also insisting on the adoption of pre-printed ballots and vote counting procedures in polling centers, instead of polling offices, in order to increase transparency and to limit bribery and vote buying, among the other various aspects of election corruption. What is more, logic dictates that the electoral law is also supposed to ensure candidates state publicly their electoral expenses in order to increase transparency and to limit electoral excesses. In reality it increases the limit candidates and parties can spend on electoral campaigning, further eroding the credibility of the political class.

We denounce this shameful behavior practiced by politicians and are increasing our lobbying efforts. However, the task at hand is not an easy one and a number of tough questions need to be addressed: How is it possible to apply pressure on a corrupted political class that regularly and successfully distracts public attention by creating alarming situations? How can we raise enough awareness to force our politicians to change when it is they who control the major media outlets? How can we persuade the silent majority of the Lebanese people to express their opinions without burning tires and blocking roads? The answers to these questions seemed far from reach before the Arab uprisings, but if our brethren in the region can overthrow their fierce dictatorships, then there is hope that we can change the Lebanese political system as well.

If civil society is to have any kind of success then it must find a common voice. If the active organizations and the potential army of thousands of volunteers can agree to submit one single list composed of 128 candidates for the parliamentary elections in 2013, or by default, one candidate for each electoral district respectively, then they will be heard by both the street and the establishment. However, if civil society as a whole is not able to unanimously reach a compromise, we will invite all those citizens who are fed up with the political class in Lebanon to cast blank votes. A blank vote, which is usually used to demonstrate dissatisfaction with the choice of candidates, would in this case be used to pressure the whole of the political class to take heed of the disenchanted masses.


RABIH EL-CHAER is managing director of the Lebanese Transparency Assosication

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