Clientelism, Vote Buying, and Ballot Reform in Lebanon


By Qifa Nabki


We’re a year away from the next Lebanese parliamentary elections, and there has been no final agreement on the proposed reforms for the next electoral law. Proportional representation seems to be dead in the water. Expatriate voting in overseas embassies may also be a pipe dream at this late stage, and the same goes for lowering the voting age.

There’s still one measure, however, that could have a significant impact on the way elections are conducted in Lebanon, and it’s perfectly doable by next summer. I’m talking about adopting uniform official ballot papers.

Why is this important? For one thing, it could help limit the practice of vote buying, which is thought to be rampant in Lebanon. Adopting uniform ballots would essentially undercut one of the available mechanisms used by political parties to ensure that the people who receive payments for their vote actually fulfill their end of the bargain on Election Day.

I assume that most regular readers of this blog are well aware of how this process works, but for the newcomers and innocents among you, here’s a quick and dirty guide to the fundamentals of getting out the vote in Lebanon.

Ballot Tracking in Lebanon

Under previous electoral laws, there have been very loose regulations on the physical form of a ballot. It is perfectly legal, as far as I know, to scribble the names of your preferred candidates on the wrapper of your morning manqousheh and drop it into the ballot box. As long as the names are legible, the wrapper (but not the manqousheh, alas) would be considered a valid ballot.

In most cases, however, people cast pre-printed ballots prepared by political parties themselves. Drive past a polling station on Election Day, roll down your window, and you’re sure to get half a dozen ballots thrust in your face by party volunteers wearing hats and waving banners. These ballots contain the names of their candidates, helpfully printed out for your convenience so you don’t have to go to the trouble of unwrapping your manqousheh and writing out the names yourself.

The problem is that the use of party-prepared ballots can undermine the secrecy of the vote because these ballots often contain hidden codes that allow them to be tracked. Variations in font and the order of candidates allow party representatives to identify with a considerable degree of accuracy who voted which way.

The current law facilitates this practice, both in the fact that polling stations are segregated by confession, family, and gender, but also by the way in which ballots are counted. Agents of all the political parties are permitted to be present during the counting phase, and every polling station must have a camera and a TV that projects the image of each ballot for every agent to inspect. Ostensibly, this allows the agents to confirm the accuracy of what’s being announced as the names on the ballots. But it also means that the agents have a ‘close-up’ view of the ballots themselves (font, list permutation, etc.) that they can use for tracking purposes.

This does not really work on an individual level. What probably happens in most vote-buying cases is that a party representative will arrange ahead of time to get a stack of coded ballots to the head of a large family or clan, who then promises to guarantee a certain number of votes on election day in exchange for some kind of special privileges: access to health care, educational financial aid, assistance with food or electricity services, maybe even cash. The politician gets the votes (which are identifiable to his agents by the coded ballots during the counting stage) and the family gets the benefits of patronage.

That, in a nutshell, is how it works. But how widespread is this practice?

Dan Corstange, a political scientist at Columbia University, has an article coming out in the next issue of the International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies which argues (on the basis of a recently conducted survey/list-experiment) that something like 55% of voters in the last parliamentary elections accepted some form of payment in exchange for their vote. (Thanks to Dan for letting me share an earlier draft of this article.) Anecdotal evidence reported in the press in the build-up to the elections confirmed that record amounts of money were being spent on wooing voters, sometimes flying them in with their families from overseas.

Even if these figures are true, however, it doesn’t necessarily mean that parties are actively using the tracking mechanism to police and discipline all of their constituents. First of all, doing so would require a highly organized approach for every agent at the count, and my conversations with civil society folks and monitors present at some of these polling stations suggest that there is not so much evidence of agents keeping super detailed double accounts of ‘votes won’ and ‘votes cast by whom’.

Furthermore, parties don’t necessarily need to track every single ballot for this method to be effective. Ballot tracking is mainly used for keeping tabs on two kinds of people. The first are those who want to be able to prove they’ve voted in a certain way (i.e. the ones who ‘sell’ votes and who use the ballot to demonstrate they’ve kept their side of the bargain).  The second are those who make up a candidate’s core electorate. However, as one civil society figure I spoke to astutely suggested:

The scale of the practice is not the same thing as the pervasiveness of the problem. The ballot issue’s mythology feeds into the paranoia that za’im-ism must create: how do I know if my ballot isn’t being traced?  This means that even though arguments in favor of official ballots have overemphasized the alleged scale of the practice, they cannot overestimate the scale of the problem, which is simply that voters being pressurized to vote a certain way by providing (whether through intimidation or vote-buying) know that a mechanism exists that allows others to know whether or not they voted in that way. It’s a scandal that Lebanon allows such a practice in the law that runs completely counter to the right of a secret ballot. As such, even if the scale of the practice is small, the impact of the problem is enough to challenge the credibility of the whole electoral process than simply the extent of whether it happens or not.

A New Ballot

Lebanon’s Ministry of the Interior has commissioned the design of an official ballot that could be used in the 2013 election. Under this new system, it would be much more difficult for parties to track the ballots, which would then undermine the vote-buying economy in certain ways, although it is unlikely to collapse it entirely. (See above for a sample of the official ballot, and note that this is just one possible example of what it could look like).

Based on what I’ve been told, most parties have signaled their readiness to allow for official ballots to be adopted, and this may reflect that the tracing of voters through the ballot is not considered to be effective, and perhaps less important, than it used to be. Some parties may also see it as an easy way to look like participants in the reform process, winning plaudits from international observers while in fact doing something that everyone else has done for the last 100 years.

Potential Problems Remain

Even if uniform official ballots are approved for the 2013 elections, this doesn’t necessarily mean that vote buying will not occur. Given that a great deal of patronage spending already takes place outside the electoral season and is not based on a straightforward quid pro quo, parties may decide to keep the financial spigots gushing and just hope that their constituents remember to vote for the right candidates.

There are some dangers to keep in mind, however. We want to avoid a situation whereby official ballots are adopted but the ability for a voter to cross off certain candidates’ names and replace them with others (as is the case under the current law) is dropped. Such a measure would accentuate the ‘block vote’ system and limit the voters’ choice to choosing one list or another rather than a choice between different candidates.

There also remains the potential problem that some people will use their phones to take photos of their marked official ballot while in the voting booth, in order to prove to their patrons that they voted in a certain way. In this case, we’d be trading a low-tech method of ballot tracking for a high-tech one, and I’d be surprised if some enterprising Lebanese doesn’t develop an iPhone app that automates the process entirely, snapping the picture and emailing it to one’s chosen za’im. (Did I say that out loud? Damn it.)

Finally, as another civil society friend remarks, the problem is not just ballots:

“Polling stations are allocated by families, confessions and gender, so it’s pretty easy for vote-buying (which is often negotiated at family higher-level, rather than directly with individuals) to continue to take place even after the introduction of official ballots because we know from the results from every polling station, how certain families voted. (That’s probably why Future and Hizbullah care less about ballot-tracking, as they often exercise party discipline through family structures). Frankly, as important as official ballots are, it will be just as important to address the issue of how the vote is counted, with one option being that we mix the ballots of different polling stations (which would require a change in the law) or we simply stop dividing people into family polling stations (which doesn’t require a legal change as it says nowhere that polling stations should be allocated along family and gender lines).”

There is, of course, a larger philosophical problem to be considered, which is that many Lebanese who benefit from this clientelistic economy prefer that it not be threatened. This is the subject of a future post, maybe later next week…

In the meantime, I’d be cheered to see civil society activists organizing a campaign in favor of this kind of achievable, concrete, practical reform, rather than calling for the end of political feudalism and the immediate creation of the Third Republic. If any of the more design-inclined among you would be interested in creating web banners promoting this initiative, get in touch via the contact form.


By Qifa Nabki

Original posting here.

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