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The Lebanese way

Posted by padams under All, Political Strategy

Paul Adams


The minute you emerge from the baggage area at Beirut airport, you know there’s an election on. My flight from Paris was packed with ex-pat Lebanese, some who made their travel plans specifically with this Sunday’s election in mind — and there were throngs of family members there to greet the arriving passengers.

Driving out of the airport, the billboards that usually advertise luxury consumer goods instead have stylish graphics promoting the dozens of parties, most of them appealing to a specific “confessional”, or religious community. These parties are in turn grouped into two large coalitions, confusingly dubbed March 8 and March 14. March 8 includes the major Shiite parties (Hezbollah and Amal), the Armenian party, and Michel Aoun’s Christian party. March 14 includes the largest Sunni party, which is led by the son of the slain former prime minister Rafik Hariri, along with several Christian parties and the main Druze party.

The election will be held using a set of rules completely unique to Lebanon.

Lebanese don’t necessarily vote where they live, but rather need to return to their “ancestral villages”. Of course there were huge migrations in populations during this country’s civil and international wars, so there will be huge traffic problems on Sunday when, in a departure from tradition, all the voting will take place on one day.

Voting occurs in multi-member constituencies that are divided up according to religion. So Beirut Three, for example, has five Sunni seats, and one each for the Shia, Druze, Greek Orthodox, Evangelical and Christian Minorities. Candidates have to be of the designated religion, but all voters get to vote for each seat regardless of their denomination.

As a practical matter, what this means is that the various parties work out deals amongst themselves, and then encourage their supporters to support their negotiated slate.

How is a poor voter supposed to keep track of all this? Well, that’s where the most peculiar feature of the Lebanese system comes into play. There is no pre-printed ballot. That’s right: no ballot.

The parties print up slips of paper with the agreed-upon candidates listed, which they hand out to their supporters at the polls. Voters simply stick these slips of paper in the box to vote.

Of course, if you are of an independent mind, you can cross out a candidate and write in the name of another. Or if you are really a maverick, polling officials will give you a blank piece of paper on which you can write out your choices.

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)