Political Perspectives is produced by the students and faculty of Carleton University's School of Journalism and Communication, Canada's oldest journalism school.


Winning the observer lottery

Posted by padams under All, Political Strategy

Paul Adams


Election observers may just be the ultimate political wonks. Having arrived in Beirut, many of them jet-lagged from travelling across the globe, the NDI observers for this Sunday’s Lebanese elections were immediately plunged into two days of briefings, running nine or ten hours a day. 

The briefings covered Lebanese political history, Lebanese constitutional and electoral law, and the evolution of political culture. There have been briefings on and from the major parties, domestic monitoring groups, and electoral officials. Then there are briefings from NDI: on security, observation procedures, and the political geography of the country.

Observers are emphatically not encouraged to wander around sight-seeing. Partly, in Lebanon, that is a security issue. But equally important to an observation mission is avoiding any suggestion of electoral tourism: some European observers (from another mission) were caught sunbathing on the beach the other day, attracting unfavourable coverage in the local media.

So in lieu of sampling the tourist delights, the moment all serious observers wait for is getting their election day assignments. The organizers don’t release this information until the last moment, to avoid the same kind of jockeying you get when Peewee hockey team lists are named. Just like everyone wants Johnny on the team with his buddy or the one with the great goaltender, observers want to get the constituency with the hottest, most intensely competitive race.

Well, this time I won the lottery. I am off to Zahle in the fabled Bekaa Valley in the morning. Zahle has two Greek Catholic seats, and one Shia, one Sunni, one Maronite, one Greek Orthodox and one Armenian Orthodox. In an election where commentators confidently predict 90% of the races without fear of contradiction, Zahle is the one no one wants to guess at.

In an election some say will come down to a matter of just a few seats between the March 8 coalition — including the big Shia parties and General Aoun’s Christian movement — and March 14 — which includes the big Sunni party as well as most of the other Christian parties — many think the race in Zahle will decide how the country goes.

So, I just won the lottery!

One of my dinner companions this evening, who comes from the region, predicted skirmishes on election day. However, nothing serious, he assured me. NDI has a very risk-averse security policy, so unlike my days as a working journalist, if trouble does occur, I have to head in the other direction.

But Lebanon will have its day on Sunday, at the top of the world’s news, and Zahle may just be at the top of Lebanon’s. So wish me luck.

Paul Adams teaches journalism at Carleton and in is Lebanon this week as an election observer with the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI).