For the first time in the country’s history, on October 17, 2019, Lebanese from all walks of life and confessions revolted against their political elite, demanding the departure of the six leaders who had shared power since the end of the civil war in 1990. In perfect sync with their compatriots in Lebanon, the Lebanese diaspora demonstrated in Toronto, New York, Paris, and London against a regime perceived as sectarian and corrupt, around the slogans “All mean all,” or “The people want the collapse of the regime.”
The October 2019 movement – nicknamed “revolution” – foreshadowed this widespread public backlash and was representative of the vast majority of Lebanese, half of whom now live outside Lebanon. The current outcry among local citizens and those in other countries can be seen as a continuation of the movement’s calls to end corruption and address the nation’s crippling socio-economic realities. Yet, as the parliamentary elections scheduled for May 2022 approach and opposition forces try to structure themselves to win in the polls, it appears that the diaspora could be deprived of its right to vote.
The daily Al-Joumhouriya revealed that, according to sources inside the Ministry of Interior (in charge of organizing the elections), Lebanese living abroad will not be able to participate in the 2022 general elections. The same source alleged that a legislative parliamentary session is set to take place before the end of the year to introduce the necessary amendments to the electoral law. The reason given by the authorities would be the “lack of financial and logistical means.”
Lebanon has been suffering since late 2019 from an unprecedented crisis, which has plunged 82 percent of Lebanese below the poverty line.
Lebanon has been suffering since late 2019 from an unprecedented economic and social crisis, which has plunged 82 percent of Lebanese below the poverty line. It is estimated that four out of ten Lebanese are unemployed, while the monthly minimum wage does not exceed US$40. The population is now relying heavily on remittances sent by the diaspora to pay for daily expenses, a diaspora that had already been mobilized since the end of the civil war to finance the country’s debt, estimated at an alarming ratio of 375 percent to GDP by the end of 2020.
A Historically Excluded Diaspora
Lebanon is the country with the largest diaspora compared to its internal population, ranging from 4 to 15 million individuals, depending on the date of emigration. It is often said that Lebanon is a phoenix with two wings, one of which is embodied by the diaspora. The temptation to emigrate has increased with the economic crisis, as up to 8,000 Lebanese are now applying for passports every day. The General Security Chief Abbas Ibrahim commented on the situation by saying that “his security apparatus was unable to keep up with the daily influx of passport applications.”
Ironically, the country’s authorities keep hailing the “Lebanese expansion” around the world, comparing it to the commercial networks woven by the Phoenicians during Antiquity.
Despite such official rhetoric, which serves to legitimize and gloss over a political and economic system that has driven millions of Lebanese out of the country, Lebanese abroad were only allowed to vote in 2018. This was a step forward achieved with the 2017 electoral law, which fixed provisions for diaspora voting.
Lebanese abroad were only allowed to vote in 2018. This was a step forward achieved with the 2017 electoral law.
However, the political weight of Lebanese living abroad remained modest as only 82,000 Lebanese (out of an estimate 1 million citizens eligible to vote) in the diaspora registered to vote, and 46,000 went to the polls in 2018, representing 2.5 percent of the total number of votes cast during the elections. These figures may be explained by a lack of interest in the elections, which are seen as useless and leading to the perpetuation of the system, as well as by logistical concerns.
For example, while the electoral law states that “the maximum number of voters per polling station is 600” and that “a territory where the number of voters is between 100 and 400 shall have one polling station,” the number of polling stations was far from sufficient in 2018; there were just 126 polling stations for a diaspora scattered across six continents.
Moreover, there is great mistrust in consular representation, which is seen as embodying the interests of the regime. Marc Tuéni, an activist with the United Diaspora movement, told Inside Arabia that many “don’t talk to the Embassy [because they believe it] represents the corrupt and confessional system in Lebanon.” Although the elections are supervised by the Ministry of Interior, there have been numerous collective calls by groups like the United Diaspora for the use of international observers, to “force the holding of elections in a democratic framework without pressure from the ruling parties.”
The movement seeks to position itself as a “watchdog” of the elections. “There will be fraud attempts, and we must act to prevent them in Lebanon as well as in polling stations abroad,” Tuéni asserted.
The “Other Half of Lebanon” Represented by Only Six Seats
As the diaspora turns to the opposition forces for support, the regime has resorted to the adoption of discriminatory laws in order to limit the weight of an electorate that it considers increasingly hostile. Indeed, the Lebanese abroad are not subject to intimidation by the government, nor to clientelism, nor to vote buying—tactics that are massively witnessed domestically during the elections.
In fact, the diaspora vote is structurally limited to six seats under the current electoral law. However, this measure was not applied in 2018, which allowed the Lebanese abroad to vote on an equal footing with their fellow citizens living in Lebanon.
It is likely that, if it does not completely prevent the diaspora vote, the Lebanese State will issue an executive decree in which it will apply the limit of six seats and detail the distribution of these seats across the six continents. As such, the political representation of the diaspora would represent barely 4 percent of the parliamentary seats.
The Kulluna Irada collective published an analysis in which it denounces this potential attempt to limit the diaspora vote and describes it as a non-democratic move that could weaken the legitimacy of the elections. It calls for respecting the principle of equality between all Lebanese by guaranteeing expatriates’ right to cast their ballots in the electoral districts of their civil registration.
In addition, Sawti and Nahwa el Watan – platforms aimed at encouraging the political participation of Lebanese abroad – also expressed their opposition. Sawti commented by saying that this act would be “dangerous, as it can lead to an appeal against the electoral process,” while Nahwa el Watan stated that “abolishing the right of expatriates to vote is against the Constitution.”
Election Matters Remain Uncertain
Months before the start of the elections, and two months before the end of the registration process, the Lebanese state has no definitive answer as to the organization of the elections. While they were announced for May 2022, Prime Minister Nagib Mikati expressed in a television interview his willingness to move them up to March 27, 2022, so that they do not take place during the month of Ramadan. According to several observers, the real reason would be to prevent the unprepared opposition from structuring itself into a unified front.
Parliament is able to amend the electoral law and cancel the diaspora vote before the end of this year.
For those in the diaspora, voting is to be held two weeks before the elections in Lebanon, though its status remains uncertain. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has set the voter registration period between October 1 and November 20, 2021, yet the Parliament is able to amend the electoral law and cancel the diaspora vote before the end of this year.
Thus, there are three possible scenarios that can be expected: the issuance of an executive decree specifying the six-seat limit for the diaspora; the continuation of the procedures of 2018, which did not separate the diaspora vote from the rest of the Lebanese; or the amendment of the electoral law before January 1, 2022, to abolish the diaspora vote. In the case of a six-seat limit, the modalities for the distribution of seats remain unknown, but it is likely that one deputy will represent a continent, in total disregard of the actual distribution of the electorate among these six continents.
To date, no official decision has been publicized, as the Lebanese State seems to cultivate an atmosphere of tension and rumors in the absence of an official announcement. Nonetheless, it can be concluded that the diaspora – though continuously hailed as a considerable asset for the country – will face significant challenges to make its voice heard.