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Jana Mourad , researcher at LCPS

February 2019
Voter Apathy and Vote Buying Stymie Lebanese Democracy

Voter mobilization and election violations are concerns across the globe. Lebanon is no exception, where voter apathy is high—especially among youth—and illegal and underhanded practices are regularly utilized by political parties to garner support from constituents. Official data released following the 2018 parliamentary elections showed that approximately half of eligible voters made the trek to cast ballots at their local polling stations, a decrease compared to the 53% who cast ballots in 2009. The adoption of a new electoral law encompassing elements of proportional representation and allowing new political party and civil society actors to compete with established parties was not sufficient to spur broader participation. In short, tentative optimism in the lead up to Lebanon’s “democratic wedding”—as described by the country’s former interior minister—was not warranted since the celebration was soured long before the marriage could be consummated.
To better understand voter turnout in the 2018 parliamentary elections as well as the prevalence of vote buying as an electoral strategy for political parties, the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies examined data from Statistics Lebanon's "Lebanon Public Opinion Survey" targeting 1,200 respondents. The survey was completed in October 2018, distributed equally between genders, and is representative of the confessional and regional distribution of the Lebanese population.
The data suggests three qualities that comprise the profile of likely voters: Those who are older, unemployed, and political party members. As previously noted, youth vote less than their older counterparts, thus expressing disinterest and unwillingness to participate in a basic aspect of the democratic process. Accompanying this finding is the fact that unemployed Lebanese and members of political parties exhibit a higher likelihood of participating in the electoral process than others—not necessarily meaning that they voted in higher percentages but that there is a higher probability that they cast ballots.
Data from the Lebanese Ministry of Interior and Municipalities shows that confession plays a significant role in this regard as Shia were the most eager to vote and had the highest turnout rate (54%) followed by Druze (53%) and Maronites (52%). Armenian Catholics (26%), Armenian Orthodox (25%), and Christian minorities (24%) were the least enthusiastic, with a modest number of their respective constituents casting ballots. Across regions, Keserwan, Jbeil, and Hermel witnessed the highest rate of voter turnout whereas Beirut, Tripoli, Bcharre, Zgharta, Koura, Bint Jbeil, Hasbaya, and Rachiaya ranked lowest in terms of turnout.
The assumption that positive change in Lebanon is unlikely to be realized was not challenged by the results and campaign methods employed by parties in the 2018 elections. Despite an unprecedented number of civil society groups—each of which released detailed and substantive political platforms—running candidates in the 2018 parliamentary polls, the electorate largely voted for established political parties. This points directly to a hallmark of Lebanese elections: Voter loyalty. Some 90% of those who voted in 2009 cast ballots for the same party in 2018. Specifically, voters were most loyal to the Amal Movement (retaining 95% of its 2009 voters), Hezbollah (retaining 93% of its 2009 voters), the Lebanese Forces (retaining 92% of its 2009 voters), and the Free Patriotic Movement (retaining 90% of its 2009 voters). Voters were least loyal to the Future Movement and the Progressive Socialist Party, though the latter two still managed to retain approximately three-quarters of their 2009 supporters at the polls.
How is it then that parties are able to maintain their apparent stranglehold on the electorate, even as they fail to mobilize more support? Among the many possible explanations is the absence of a legal framework penalizing illegal campaign practices in the lead up to and during elections. To put it bluntly, allegations of fraud and recorded electoral infractions by candidates and political parties were widely reported. The survey touches on one specific practice, namely, vote buying. Vote buying entails gifts—in the form of money or goods—being provided prior to an election in order to persuade constituents to vote in a certain manner, mobilize on election day, or abstain from voting. Some 40% of survey respondents reported incidents of vote buying in their neighborhoods. When directly asked about whether they personally received handouts in exchange for their votes, the number decreases to only 20%. To put this in further perspective, constituents who are most affected by vote buying are of low socio-economic status, have few political networks, and have a strong sectarian identity.
Of note is the tendency of parties to resort to vote buying in order to maintain the support of loyal voters rather than mobilize swing voters. This finding falls in line with the so-called “turnout buying model” (as opposed to the “vote buying model”). This model is predicated on parties effectively purchasing the votes of loyal voters in order to monitor whether or not they voted, as parties can be confident that when the moment arrives to cast a ballot for the “correct” list and candidate, the bought-off voter will do as they have promised. By comparison, assuring compliance among swing voters would require confirmation that both the bought-off voter cast a ballot and that they are monitored to ensure the “correct” list and preferred candidate are selected.
It is apparent that efforts to mobilize voters and engage them in the electoral process, as well as combating illegal electoral practices such as vote buying, face an uphill battle. The findings of this survey strongly suggest compliance by a sizeable portion of voters and corrupt political actors. Such conclusions call for an awareness campaign, one that stresses the impact individual voters have on the outcome of elections, and, more importantly, how that can affect their wellbeing and their families’ and friends’ wellbeing.  
Moreover, ensuring the secrecy of one’s vote could address both problematic issues outlined in this article. The new electoral law at least requires the preprinting of ballots, so as not to allow vote counters (who are themselves representatives of political parties) to identify doctored ballots as they are counted. But this is hardly enough. Reports suggest that parties found ways to work around this measure by in many instances accompanying voters as they cast ballots. Ending what amounts to intimidation would be a first, positive step in reducing the number of people who feel compelled to sell their vote as well as instill trust in a system which has continuously perpetuated the opposite. If for nothing else, this could offer one less reason for disaffected members of the electorate to stay home on election day or feel they have no other option than to succumb to the pressures of the country’s established interests as they maintain their stranglehold on power at the expense of the people they ostensibly serve.

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