Vote fraught with fraud, corruption and coercion
by Sami Halabi
Lebanon’s June 7 parliamentary elections are expected to be a close affair, pitting the March 14 coalition against the opposition parties of Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, Hezbollah and Amal. The elections are unprecedented in many respects, not least of which is the introduction of a new electoral law.
Lebanon’s new electoral law is unique in the region, addressing core issues such as media objectivity during the elections and campaign finance. The reforms are a step towards adopting legislation that would bring Lebanon’s elections in line with international standards. But the current legislation is “diluted by significant loopholes,” said Madeline Albright, the former United States Secretary of State, when she touched down in Beirut to head a delegation to monitor elections from the National Democratic Institute (NDI).
The loopholes are many, but certain reforms that did not exist prior to this year’s elections have been adopted. Not least of which is Lebanon’s newly formed Constitutional Council that can adjudicate contraventions of the electoral law.
Spending caps skirted
In theory, the new election law stipulates that an “electoral campaign account” must be established for each candidate and “all electoral contributions and expenses shall be exclusively made through this account during the period of the electoral campaign.”
The law restricts each candidate to a campaign spending limit, including pay-in-kind expenses, of approximately $100,000, plus a variable of around $2.66 per registered voter in an electoral district, which is measured by the Ministry of Interior’s list of registered voters. But the actual number of eligible voters in a district is impossible to calculate because Lebanon has not conducted a census since 1932.
“Candidates are required to do all their spending from their electoral account, but they can make transactions from their personal accounts or their family’s accounts and no one can know,” said Lynne Ghossein, the campaign finance project manager at the Lebanese Transparency Association (LTA).
One possible solution to this skirting of the law would be to monitor candidate’s personal accounts or those of their families. But this provision is not included in the new electoral law.
“I gave my opinion while discussing the draft electoral law and I said very openly that we cannot limit banking secrecy to the campaign account,” said Lebanon’s Interior Minister Ziad Baroud at a press conference for the Supervisory Commission on the Election Campaign (SCEC). Baroud is responsible for insuring the SCEC fulfills its mission of implementing the new electoral law.
Lebanon is one of the only countries in the world that maintains a policy of banking secrecy on personal accounts. Banking secrecy can only be lifted by the Special Investigation Committee (SIC) of the Lebanese Central Bank.
“We have not lifted banking secrecy on any candidate’s accounts nor received any request to do so,” said Hisham Hamzeh, director of the audit and investigation unit at the SIC.
Hamzeh explains that banking secrecy is only lifted in order to investigate suspected “terrorist” activity, as well arms and narcotics trafficking and money laundering. Even if candidates are found to have violated the campaign spending clauses of the electoral law, the public would not find out about it until after the elections, when many of the candidates will have already assumed office.
“The only thing that can happen is when the election is over someone does the inventory and campaign auditing for a candidate. [Then] they can see that there is more money spent than what was in the [electoral campaign] account,” said Nadine Farghal, legal counsel and coordinator at the Lebanese Civil Campaign for Electoral Reform (CCER). “This way they can see that [the candidate] has used another account.”
Violations of campaign financing regulations are to be submitted to Lebanon’s Constitutional Council, whose formation has been delayed for years. On May 19, a group of 55 Lebanese civil society organizations and eight universities sent a formal letter to President Michel Sleiman demanding the creation of the Constitutional Council.
On May 26 — less than two weeks before the election — Lebanon’s cabinet finally appointed its half of the council’s membership (five out of the 10 seats). The council is Lebanon’s highest judicial body that can rule on the constitutionality of the elections and is seen as an essential judicial organ providing an alternative to violent conflict over electoral contentions.
In addition to being prevented from tracking the personal accounts of candidates, the SCEC can only begin to monitor campaign accounts from the point when candidates officially submit their eligibility, a period that ran from March 2 to April 7. Hence, supposing that candidates do follow the letter of the law and only use their campaign accounts to fund their campaigns, there is still no adequate mechanism in the law to account for the total amount spent on a campaign, which began well before the submission period.
“The monitoring time is [too] short and we didn’t get the time we wanted,” Baroud said.
Yara Nassar, executive director of the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections, said that long before the monitoring period began, candidates used their own accounts or that of their party. She said the lack of an official commission to report violations in the run-up to the election period is another significant shortcoming of the new law.
“This is the first time the SCEC is here,” she said. “They haven’t been around for four or five years and this is part of the problem.”
In theory, Lebanon’s new electoral law specifically prohibits candidates “from accepting or receiving, whether directly or indirectly, contributions or aids from foreign states or from a non-Lebanese natural or legal person.”
But without oversight on candidates’ personal accounts, there is technically little to stop candidates from ignoring the law and accepting the support of foreign entities willing to dish out cash to support their interests.
“Candidates can receive money in other accounts then transfer it to their electoral account,” said Gaelle Kibranian, programs director at the LTA. “We cannot know where this money is coming from.”
Lebanon’s role as a battleground for regional and international players makes it a prime candidate for illegal money entering the country to support one side of the political divide more than another.
“Can you say that Hezbollah doesn’t take money from Iran or Saad Hariri doesn’t take money from Saudi or [Michel] Aoun from Qatar,” added one legal expert who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It’s all around the media and no one is investigating it.”
The practice of accepting foreign money has become so commonplace in affecting the course of Lebanese politics that many politicians have heralded it as a necessary element to achieving their political aims. Ahmad el-Assad, a candidate running for the Shiite seat in the Marjayoun electoral district and founder of the Lebanese Option Gathering (LOG), said he has “no problem” with accepting financial help from Saudi Arabia or the US “because if we don’t do that things don’t move forward.” However, he denied receiving any funding for his campaign from foreign sources.
His organization aims to provide an alternative to Hezbollah’s influence over Shiites in the south of Lebanon. Assad accused Hezbollah and its allies of intimidating the residents of Lebanon’s south and of receiving “tens of millions of dollars” from Iran. Hezbollah declined to comment on Assad’s accusations.
International and local election watchdogs say the biggest obstacle to preventing vote buying is the balloting system in Lebanon. Ballots can be printed or written out on any piece of paper and parties usually hand out their pre-printed “list” before a voter enters a polling station.
A party can hand out a variety of ballots, with candidates listed in any order and any font. This in turn allows political parties to trace the ballot back to a particular voter or bloc of voters.
Despite repeated calls by civil society and some government figures like Minister Baroud, the proposed introduction of standardized, pre-printed and government distributed ballots at the polls was not included in the 2008 Election Law, due to opposition from parties on both sides of the political spectrum.
“We know that the buying happens at the ballot because it is just a piece of paper and they [candidates and parties] put signs on it and pay for the votes afterwards,” the LTA’s Kibranian said.
She said each party has representatives at the polling station during vote counting who, in turn, monitor the number of votes cast for each candidate or list of candidates. CCER’s Farghal said the markings are usually simple alterations in the lists of candidates, such as having the “second name in italics or the third name in a different font.”
Election observers agree that most of the ballot rigging happens at the ‘family level,’ whereby large families in electoral districts agree to arrange for their family members to cast votes for a certain candidate or list of candidates. Once the ballots are counted, each family then receives cash or pay in-kind services according to the number of counted votes.
“We have witnessed representatives of the candidates marking each name when they count the votes,” said Nassar of LADE. “They see the ballots they need to mark and then they mark their own register.”
But it’s not just families that take part in vote buying corruption. An anonymous source working with one of the major Christian opposition parties in Lebanon said his party recruited through an “electoral pyramid scheme,” whereby the amount of money ‘recruiters’ make increases with the number of people they ‘recruit.’ The source has agreed to vote for the party in question and act as a representative at the polling booth.
“All they wanted was a photocopy of my ID,” the source said. “If you have a car they need your driver’s license and you can get more [money] because they ask you to transport people.”
The source said he was receiving $100 for his vote and $100 to man the polling station come June 7.
Candidates and parties are also looking to bring votes back to Lebanon from abroad, and with it the voters, because current legislation does not allow Lebanese citizens to vote outside the country.
An anonymous source in Dubai with links to a prominent Sunni party said the electoral pyramid scheme that applies to local vote buying is also being put to use abroad. The source said that parties are giving voters abroad, especially those from tightly contested districts, either airline ticket vouchers or sending them tickets directly.
While this is not technically an illegal practice, the electoral law specifically states that transportation costs must be deducted from a candidate’s electoral campaign account.
“If you can prove that the candidates themselves are paying for people to fly in from abroad to come and vote for them, then it can be counted as campaign spending,” said Farghal.
As for the foreign staff in charge of recruiting voters, the payment of their salaries will not pose much of a problem in circumventing the law.
“If I am a candidate and I have a lawyer, even if he is not a very smart one, I will find a way to make it seem like these people [foreign staff] are volunteering to get me more votes abroad,” added Farghal.
The current law allows for volunteers to provide services for free which are not counted as campaign expenditures.
Pay-in-kind and your vote is mine
Apart from candidates merely paying people in cash to further their campaign, many parties and candidates are blatantly disregarding the illegality of pay-in-kind services to further their campaigns.
In May the March 14-affiliated Kataeb party advertised on its website that it had distributed free medicine and healthcare in a “special for the campaign.”
El-Assad’s campaign also “distributed health cards that were conditional upon voter choices,” according to a report issued by LADE. El-Assad admited to this violation but says that it pales in comparison to Hezbollah’s violations. Hezbollah declined to comment.
The media’s bark
The new electoral law aims to restrict Lebanon’s sectarian media landscape from unbalanced reporting on the elections. Given that each major media outlet in Lebanon belongs to one political party or another, this is turning out to be an uphill battle for the SCEC.
“Our media landscape is controlled by people who are running in the elections and obviously they will use their media outlets for their own purposes,” said Roula Mikhael, executive director of the Maharat Foundation, a local NGO that is monitoring the media during the elections.
The SCEC’s first report in early May identified 293 media violations of just one article of the electoral law committed over 14 days, from April 14 to April 28. The report covers several categories of contraventions across different types of media that include libel, slander, defamation and broadcasting that triggers sectarian tensions.
The first report contained no specifics as to who committed which media violation because of what head of the SCEC Ghassan Abu Alwan, called “a period of forgiveness.” Minister Baroud added that “we should not consider that it is impossible for the media to follow the law.”
The media organizations however seem to be above the law as they enjoy widespread support among large swaths of the Lebanese public because of their political and religious affiliations. Nassar of LADE explained that the issue of addressing what the media are allowed to do is “something that the authorities in Lebanon are afraid to tackle or take action against,” because “even if the court says you are right, you are well documented and you have everything you need to do this, public opinion could sway against you.”
Piles of posters
The new law also lays out the explicit terms for displaying political posters by which each municipality must assign spaces for display.
But given Lebanon’s municipal elections are scheduled to be held next year, municipalities have a lot to consider if they are to take down illegal posters of a candidate who could represent them in government after June 7.
“Municipalities are usually politicized so they will not, in most cases, forbid people from hanging posters of a certain figure,” said Tony Mikhael, lawyer and legal expert at Maharat. But since the beginning of May, reports have surfaced that the law is being applied in some areas of Lebanon, but “if you go outside of Beirut you see the chaos when it comes to hanging pictures,” said Mikhael.
This practice has greatly impeded any monitoring body’s ability to track campaign expenditures on campaign posters. The SCEC has declared that the cost of any promotional material that even alludes to a candidate or their party will be counted against their campaign account. On the ground, however, there are always ways around such rules.
“You cannot forbid people from placing posters on private property,” Tony Mikhael said. “If you put a picture on the roof or balcony of a building, the municipality can do nothing.”
Abusing public office
Public officials have been accused by various monitors and NGOs of abusing their public offices to promote their campaigns. One of these is the telecommunications Minister Gebran Bassil who recently sent out a voice recording to mobile phone subscribers advertising Lebanon’s recent deduction in phone tariffs.
The message started out by saying “This is not a lie, but the truth” mentioning the minister’s name, but not that of his ministry, which prompted a flurry of accusations. His office said that he recorded the message on April 1, before he submitted his candidacy. Gebran’s office said “technical reasons” caused some subscribers to receive the message later.
Even Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri, an opposition leader, has been criticized by LADE for promoting himself and his electoral list by giving speeches at the opening of public events.
Ali Hamdan, a senior adviser to Berri, said that the SCEC has approved of all of the speaker’s speeches, and in turn accused LADE of being biased.
“The US is supporting this NGO so how can they be neutral,” said Hamdan. “They are not neutral anymore and [hence] they should be phased out.” LADE declined to respond to the allegation.
The mudslinging will most likely continue well into and past the elections. But with the legal body to prosecute violations in place, the law now has some teeth. And, with some key reforms advocated by civil society already enacted, there is a sense that the ball has at least started rolling on the path to a democratic process that is in line with international standards.
First published in Executive Magazine’s June 2009 issue