Lebanese expats can now vote from abroad, so what's stopping them?

Lebanese expats can now vote from abroad, so what's stopping them?
Analysis: Lebanese citizens living abroad can now vote in the country's parliamentary elections, but the response so far has been mixed, writes Richard Salamé.
7 min read
11 December, 2017
Many Lebanese see little point in maintaining a relationship with Lebanon after naturalisation abroad [AFP]
More than 90,000 Lebanese citizens living abroad registered to vote last month in the country's first ever parliamentary election that allowed non-resident citizens to vote from their country of residence. 

The rule change is one of several long-sought-after reforms to Lebanese electoral law and is the outcome of intense negotiations between different Lebanese political parties.

Gebran Bassil, head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Emigrants since 2014, has been a leading advocate within the government of diaspora voting during his tenure.

In November he declared victory on Twitter, stating "92,810 diasporans believe change in Lebanon is coming. 92,810 and many more for change." In an interview with his own Free Patriotic Movement's affiliated TV channel OTV, Bassil called the number of registrants very high in light of the difficulties and uncertainties surrounding the new mechanism. 

The Lebanese diaspora population of 4–6 million likely outnumbers Lebanon's domestic citizen population of just over 4 million, but only some 1.2 million diaspora members are thought to have maintained citizenship. It is one of the most established Arab diasporas, dating back to 19th century migration from Ottoman Mount Lebanon.

Like most Middle Eastern countries, Lebanon has hereditary citizenship that can be passed from male citizens to their children regardless of where they are born. But many Lebanese, especially those living in countries with liberal naturalisation policies, see little point in maintaining a relationship with the Lebanese state after getting naturalised in their country of residence.

Read more:  Lebanon's political class must capitalise on Hariri's newfound popularity

Nearly 500,000 Americans claim Lebanese ancestry, of whom 120,000 were born in Lebanon, according to the US Census Bureau.

Remittances from the global diaspora constitute a sixth of Lebanese GDP, one of the highest rates in world. The majority of this funding is sent to families and village-level institutions, and national-level political participation has been uneven.

The situation has given rise to a number of semi-governmental organisations to encourage diaspora Lebanese to maintain their Lebanese citizenship.

Dr Akram Khater, Director of the Moise A. Khayrallah Center for Lebanese Diaspora Studies at North Carolina State University, commended Bassil for his efforts to improve the government's outreach to the diaspora, which has not always been successful.

Now that the system exists, members of the diaspora are mixed in their responses to the prospect of diaspora voting

Still, he added, "there's a notion that the state needs to do a lot in terms of infrastructure, corruption, outdated laws, to gain the trust of the community".

Many governmental and semi-governmental initiatives focus on Christian Lebanese, who make up the majority of the diaspora population, and who are less likely to pass citizenship onto their children than Lebanese of other faiths.

A recent circular by Bishops Gregory Mansour and Elias Zaidan, the highest ranking Maronite officials in the US, called on Lebanese-American Christians to re-claim their citizenship rights in order to "preserve both Christianity in Lebanon and the true cultural diversity that has always been a source of Lebanese pride".

Gregory Mansour, Bishop of the Maronite Eparchy that oversees the Eastern half of the United States, told The New Arab the response to the Church's consistent citizenship registration drives is "not as strong as I had hoped".

Other organisations across the religious and ideological spectrum have reported widespread skepticism about the elections, which parliament has repeatedly postponed since 2014.

A previous effort to implement diaspora voting, in 2012, registered only 4,900 people. The then-foreign minister Adnan Mansour, a member of the predominantly Shia Amal Movement, attributed the low turnout to the diaspora's lack of interest in voting, but opponents charged that this explanation was a fig leaf for deliberately poor implementation and the ministry's failure to conduct outreach.

Amal has historically been very active in its diaspora engagement, particularly with the Lebanese community in West Africa, which is largely Shia.

All political parties and even some foreign governments have been active in the questionable practice of buying diasporans plane tickets to Lebanon in exchange for votes. Tens of thousands of voters travelled to Lebanon to vote in the last elections in 2009, whether on self-funded trips or on trips funded from other sources.

Proponents of diaspora voting say the voting patterns will change once the public realises the new law is being successfully implemented. Joey Chbeir, leader of an advocacy group called The Lebanese American Council for Democracy, told The New Arab that the successful registration of 90,000 people could mean even greater diaspora interest if the deadline were extended.

"Lebanese people are skeptical," he said. "I think we could double the number of registrations if people see that other people are voting in this upcoming election."

Lebanese politics - a unique system

The Lebanese parliamentary system is unique in that each religious community has a fixed allocation of seats, while voters in each district cast ballots for lists that include candidates of different religions.

Electoral reform has been one of the highest profile political issues in recent years, and the subject of complicated negotiations, especially since the definition of districts is widely seen as a way of distributing power among different sectarian communities.

All political parties and even some foreign governments have been active in the questionable practice of buying diasporans plane tickets to Lebanon in exchange for votes

Christian parties including Bassil's own Free Patriotic Movement have been the most fervent supporters of diaspora voting over the past decade, along with leaders in the predominately Sunni Future Movement.

But purely sectarian incentives are limited given that under the Lebanese confessional system an increase in voters from a particular sect would not provide affiliated parties with any more parliamentary seats.

Wendy Pearlman, an American political scientist, has hypothesised that diaspora voting is most useful to parliamentary sponsors, in order to help them thwart independent candidates who are less able to rally absentee voters far from local power bases in Lebanon.

The new electoral law passed in June of this year that allows diaspora voting also instantiates a minimum vote threshold that a party would need to receive to win any seats. That threshold ranges from 8-20 percent depending on the district, thought to be designed to exclude upstart challengers.

The American diaspora responds

The push for diaspora voting came from parties and organisations within Lebanon and was not a result of active lobbying by members of the diaspora, according to several interviews with activists and researchers.

Now that the system exists, members of the diaspora are mixed in their responses to the prospect of diaspora voting.

Jamal Khalil Saab, coordinator of the Future Movement's Michigan branch, says his party chapter worked with the Detroit consulate to encourage people to register and held an open house where they helped community members complete electronic applications.

It's 'irresponsible' for diasporans to vote for municipal-level officials in villages their families may have left decades ago - Dr Akram Khater

He didn't register himself, he says, because, like other community members he cited, he plans to schedule a visit to Lebanon to coincide with the elections so he can vote in person.

Like other diaspora members - even those who plan to vote in person - Saab is aware of the ambivalences that surround diaspora voting as a concept. "[Lebanese living in Lebanon] have the right to say that we are abroad - we are not paying taxes, we are not living the hardship. Maybe we are contributing somehow as every immigrant does for his family in Lebanon, but, really, no we shouldn't make decisions for the parliament."

For Chbeir, diaspora voters can improve Lebanese democracy. "When we drive [in the US]," he says, "we drive between the lines. When we wait for things, we wait in lines. We try to reflect the values we've learned overseas and elect people who share our vision of Lebanon…

"I understand the view that, in some way or another, if you live overseas you don't have to live with the consequences but fresh blood is always needed and fresh ideas are always needed for the betterment of a country. The values we have learned while living in the diaspora are probably needed to improve Lebanon."

Khater, for his part, will not be voting. He says its wrong to do so and especially "irresponsible" for diasporans like himself to vote for municipal-level officials in villages their families may have left decades ago. "But that's not the only way you link the diaspora to Lebanon," he says, "Lebanon is very much defined by immigration in real practical terms.

"We're not just talking about money but ideas, cultural production, and philanthropic projects. I think its important to continually link the two communities together but not necessarily to mobilise them for political purposes. Those abroad who have built expertise and experiences have a responsibility to help Lebanon."

Richard Salamé is a New York-based journalist and writer.

Folllow him on Twitter: @rjsalame