Reforming Lebanon's Political Culture

When the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections was founded in 1996, it planned to curb the widespread corruption of elections. In this year's election, the NGO is cautiously supported by the government. Bernhard Hillenkamp reports

photo: AP
"Take it to the streets" - NGOs like LADE are working to make political processes transparent for the public

​​Three million Lebanese are being called upon to vote in the parliamentary elections, taking place on four consecutive Sundays in May and June. A profusion of posters showing the heads of the mostly male candidates for the 128 seats in parliament decorate the streets.

The text usually consists only of the candidate’s name, in some cases including the election list on which he can be found, and more rarely a religious affiliation. One almost never sees a party name or emblem.
In the small shop run by Mohammed S. in Zokak al-Blat in West Beirut, election fever is heating up. Mohammed announces: "I told Hariri's men that if they want me to – and are willing to pay for it – I can bring all of my children over from Germany to vote for him." Buying votes and manipulating poll results is nothing new in Lebanese elections.

Counteracting corruptness of the political system

A group of academics, students and citizens' rights advocates got together in 1996 to take steps to counteract this situation, and established the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections (LADE). "We wanted to learn from the experiences of the Eastern Europeans," says Karam Karam, at that time a founding member and today a project manager for the LADE election monitors.

"Our initiative was also a way of compensating for the general political frustration. The Ministry of the Interior and the political elites were manipulating the democratic process. We wanted to do something about it." LADE intends to strengthen democratic awareness and educate the Lebanese about their political rights. But this has never been an easy task.

The government, above all the Ministry of the Interior, was skeptical and sent "observers" to watch over the election monitors. But all they discovered was a small NGO in an old townhouse on a lively street in West Beirut.

Dead can vote

Between elections, only one managing director works for LADE. Currently, however, three full-time staff members are employed. The atmosphere in the small office is animated.
A young Druze in his twenties, wearing the traditional sharwal trousers and a cap, is here to pick up a list of all people eligible to vote in his hometown in the Shouf region.

"In the mountains where I live, it's hard to keep track of who can vote. Many of those eligible are abroad, and some of them are deceased but are still on the list. Walid Jumblat takes advantage of the confusion. Strangers suddenly appear with someone else's voter card in hand to cast 'their' ballot."

Immediate political influence

Karam explains to him that he has to put his comment on record and sign his name to it. Without legally valid testimony, LADE is powerless. The reports submitted by LADE have already resulted in four by-elections.
Karam estimates that 500 volunteer election monitors will turn out on the voting days. One of them is Yara. She is sitting at a table, reading and cutting out newspaper clippings. This is part of a different LADE project: the observation of election reporting in the media.

Yara studied political science at the University of Lebanon: "My friends are all members of political organizations. I wanted to get involved politically in a different way; that's why I'm participating in an introductory course for election monitors at LADE. On the four voting days, I want to volunteer to document any irregularities at the polling stations."

Lebanon's electoral problems are manifold: "Deceased and traveling voters are only one aspect. The candidates are also doing their best to collect votes. This is often impossible to document. In the North, for example, a conspicuous number of building permits have been granted recently. This is something we need to look into," says Karam.

Networking to increase influence

A pool of activists has emerged in the wake of the last three parliamentary and state elections. Universities and NGOs as well as political groups are cooperating with LADE to prepare staff members, usually young volunteers, for the work ahead.

Office space has been rented all over the country for the two-month election period. The information needed for election monitoring is gathered there and the volunteers trained for their job.

Now Yara is surrounded by fifteen mostly young people who are listening to what is being said about electoral law and the electoral process. Many questions come up and everyone is asked to fill out a form. All they need to do after that is enclose a passport photo and they can pick up their ID card at the Ministry of the Interior.

With a little help from the international community…

"The new Interior Minister has granted us access to the polling stations; we will be officially accredited for the first time for these elections. The government wants to show its citizens, and especially the international community, that these are true democratic elections. International election observers have also been admitted. The attitude toward election monitoring has improved." A partial victory in Lebanon.

LADE has already made contact with other initiatives in the Arab world, and has trained election monitors in Yemen and Iraq.
"In 2007, we will be training local monitors for the municipal elections that have been announced in Syria, inshallah," comments Omar, another LADE staff member, with a wide smile full of optimism.

After the parliamentary elections in Lebanon are over, LADE plans to work on reforming the country's election law. The simple pluralist system that has been in effect up until now, whereby the candidate – for the seat of a specific confession in a certain election district – with the most votes wins, is to be replaced with proportional representation in a mixed electoral system.

Bernhard Hillenkamp

© 2005

Translation from German: Jennifer Taylor-Gaida

Civil Society in Lebanon
Sensitive Political Issues Are Avoided
After the killing of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, thousands took to the street to protest. In Beirut, Bernhard Hillenkamp interviewed social economist Omar Traboulsi about the prospects of civil society in the midst of political turmoil