Election business, the Lebanese way

While posters are the tip of the iceberg, they represent only a tiny portion of the electoral money spent in each election

Election business, the Lebanese way

Electoral candidate Michel Murr on the list, “Together We Are Stronger,” which is supported by the Tashnag Armenian political party. (Credit: Jeanine Jalkh/OLJ)

During each election, millions of dollars are spent on communication, clientelism and vote buying at each election, all of which trample the applicable electoral law.

In the Metn electoral district, the Murr dynasty wants to carry on the tradition. From the top of Bteghrin down to the coast to Amaret Chalhoub where the family’s headquarters is located, the roads are filled with giant photos of Michel Murr Jr., the grandson of the former Member of Parliament who died in February 2021.

His grandfather was often considered the epitome of clientelism, resisting political parties and the changes to the electoral law, while relying on public relations with local authorities which allowed him to weave and maintain a solid network over the years. Like in every election, the Murr family shows off its means. If the family overspends a little bit more than the others, it is definitely not the only one to spend exuberantly in these times of austerity.

Posters featuring Kataeb or Lebanese Forces (LF) candidates, those of the “Beirut Confronts” list, supported by former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and headed by former Minister Khaled Kabbani, or Fouad Makhzoumi’s list, “Beirut Needs a Heart,” are equally abundant in the constituencies where their respective candidates are running.

“One only has to count the number of billboards to learn who has the most money in the country,” said an elections expert who asked to remain anonymous.

While posters are the tip of the iceberg, they represent only a tiny portion of the money spent during elections. From costs relating to administrative offices, recruiting delegates across polling stations on voting day, candidates’ appearances on television to actual vote-buying, donors spend several millions of dollars that keep one of the country's most lucrative businesses running, benefiting a whole chain of, usually already-established actors.

The political parties take advantage of this to replenish their funds and continue their electoral campaigns, with money going towards media appearances (for those who can afford it) and vote-buying, whether through direct or indirect purchasing of votes through coverage of transportation costs for voters to travel to their polling stations in Lebanon.

But how do they fund such a costly season this year in the shadow of a severe economic and financial crisis and the multiple dysfunctions of the banking sector? The restrictions that the banks, which only pay cash sparingly, imposed and the many service providers’ refusal to be paid in anything other than dollars raises doubts about the campaign financing and makes the commission’s oversight of the law complex.

Candidate Faycal Sayegh, on the “Beirut Confronts” list (supported by Fouad Siniora and the Progressive Socialist Party). (Credit: João Sousa/OLJ)

The electoral law is clear, however, and the spending limit is determined by the electoral law. The latter provides for a spending limit of LL750 million ($27,700, at the parallel market rate on April 24, 2022) for each candidate, in addition to a so-called cap of LL50,000 per registered voter, though this amount varies depending on the number of voters in each constituency.

But how can one control what the candidate actually spent? The 2017 electoral law provides for the control of election expenses through a bank account that each candidate needs to open and from which the candidate is supposed to carry out all transactions related to electoral expenses. However, it is practically difficult to verify whether the candidate has used this account alone and not any others. In the presence of bank secrecy, it is almost impossible to control or monitor the transactions made. It is a loophole that the law has probably (some would say knowingly) ignored.

The absence of a comprehensive law on party financing in Lebanon adds even more opacity, as no transparency on the source of political parties' revenues is possible, let alone on clientelist services rendered before the 2022 parliamentary elections.

And there are many exceptions. The electoral law provides a loophole for Hezbollah, whose financial transactions take place outside the traditional banking circuit, and for candidates who are under sanctions and cannot open bank accounts. The latter can benefit from a special account provided by the Finance Ministry, from which they can spend according to the applicable rules and be accountable for their expenses.

“In 2018, several of these accounts were opened without any transactions being made,” said an election expert, who asked to remain anonymous.

In their defense, the candidates are making another argument this year: The difficulty that the banks provide the cash needed for the many expenses. No one is ashamed to say publicly that they will use cash to finance their campaigns. Hezbollah even brags about it.

“Hezbollah has its own means and does not need to go through banks. It has enough cash that it withdraws from its annual budget and will dedicate it to the elections,” said Faysal Abdel Sater, an analyst close to the pro-Iran party. Hezbollah has often publicly acknowledged that it receives money from Iran on a regular basis.

Parachuting businessmen

With al-Manar tv channel, al-Nour radio station, and several media sites that are close or affiliated with Hezbollah, the party does not have to pay for the communication of its campaign.

This pattern is not too different from that of the Amal movement, which also has its affiliated media outlets. Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri also relies on the funds provided by businessmen he has included on his lists and who generously contribute to the financing of his campaign.

According to a candidate of the protest movement who is running in the South III constituency, Nabih Berri will notably count on the fortune of Nasser Jaber — who is replacing Yassine Jaber this year after he announced he will not be running with Amal — as a financial tycoon to cover the expenses of the campaign. The choice of Marwan Kheireddine (South III, Hasbaya) a prominent banker, Chairman and General Manager of Al-Mawared Bank, who was listed in the Pandora Papers for offshore holding accounts, replaces Anwar Khalil, another businessman, is also added to the list for the same purpose.

Electoral candidate Ghassan Hasbani on the list “We Are for Beirut,” which is supported by the Lebanese Forces. (Credit: João Sousa/OLJ)

The possibility of a businessman buying his place on the list is not limited to the Amal Movement. In 2018, the Free Patriotic Movement had invited candidates on its lists “who practically bought their seats,” said an election analyst on condition of anonymity.

He was referring to leading figures such as Elias Bou Saab, Amal Abou Zeid, Neemat Frem and Michel Daher. While the first two are running again on the FPM lists, Neemat Frem and Michel Daher, who have both withdrawn from the Aounist group, are running alone as independents in Mount Lebanon I and Bekaa I, respectively. Frem is running with the “The Cry of a Nation” list, while Daher is running with the “Independent Sovereignests” list. Both lists have been officially endorsed by the Kataeb Party, according to Sawti’s electoral platform. “The FPM relies on wealthy figures who are the movement’s partners, but non-partisan,” said the analyst. According to him, it is a way to circumvent the sanctions imposed on party leader Gebran Bassil.

Officially, the FPM said that this year’s campaign is modest and that its expenses dropped to a minimum.

“We rely mainly on the annual budget that is usually set after the March 14 [annual fundraising] dinner and during which generous donations are made,” said Rindala Jabbour, the former coordinator of the FPM central media committee. “A large part of these donations will be used this year to finance the elections, in addition to the money that comes from Canada, Australia and the Gulf countries from sponsors who were not afraid of the U.S. sanctions,” she added.

‘It all depends on the candidates’ means’

“This year, money will be flowing. This will create a big problem in terms of transparency, because no one will be able to control the flow, and the spending limit will certainly be exceeded,” said Zeina Helou, an election expert and campaign chairwoman for the Lna (For Us) party which emerged from the protest movement.

An average billboard costs between $1,000 and $4,000 per month. This is a big amount of money, as these billboards are distributed throughout the country for several months.

But the biggest expenses noted are probably related to TV stations, where the opacity increases particularly since there is a great deal of money involved. Officially, TV stations are supposed to submit the list of prices they intend to charge to the Supervisory Commissions for Elections (SCE), which monitors the expenses incurred by the candidates and verifies that the law is being respected.

A convoy of supporters of the Free Patriotic Movement, which is led by Gebran Bassil. (Credit: Jeanine Jalkh/OLJ)

In principle, TV stations must charge candidates only for election advertising, not for broadcasting information related to their candidacy or electoral programs, such as an appearance on the news or as part of a political talk show. This right has been vested in order to ensure equal opportunity among candidates. In practice, however, this distinction between two types of communication has never been respected. In 2018, private TV stations have taken full advantage of this by charging astronomical prices.

“News information about the elections shall not be paid for in any way. Reserving interventions that are paid for in advance as part of a political talk show as the majority of TV stations do is completely illegal,” Helou said. The Lebanese Association for Democracy in Elections (LADE) has repeatedly denounced this practice. The majority of the media outlets do not see it in this light and wait impatiently for the election season to fill their pockets, even if it means violating the law.

It was not until mid-March, which is very late, that the commission received the “official” list of prices charged by the various media outlets.

“This list was sent just for the sake of it to show that the channels respect the procedure. It does not reflect the real prices required under the table,” said an election expert who declined to be named.

Sources corroborated similar prices, and said TV stations offer the parties, lists or individuals “package deals,” consisting of several appearances across different shows.

“One candidate told me that he was asked for $150,000 to appear on a very popular talk show,” a source close to the commission said on condition of anonymity.

“Not everyone gets the same offer. It all depends on the candidates’ means,” said a media source who asked to remain anonymous.

The commission can hardly keep record of the price variation, as no trace of these payments is visible.

“We will only be able to verify the official prices that have been submitted to us. We will never know how much each candidate actually paid in the end, if it was done under the table,” said the member of the SCE.

In a video that has circulated widely on social networks, Ziad Abi Chaker, an environmental and industrial engineer, as well as a candidate on the protest movement list of Tahalof Watani in the Beirut I constituency, denounced the use of money for buying TV time for electoral purposes. He recounted how a manager of one of the major television channels offered him to be on a talk show for three or four minutes in exchange for $25,000.

“That’s the price we’re charging right now. The closer we get to the election date, the higher the price,” said an official at the channel who asked to remain anonymous

From $100 to $1,000 per vote

In addition to advertising and electoral information, candidates and parties must also plan their operating expenses, especially on election day, including the cost for delegates, election office and transport.

Faced with the soaring gasoline prices, the parties are already planning a system to transport voters, a service that has become almost commonplace. “Hezbollah is in the middle of a discussion on whether to provide coupons for gasoline or to pay cash for transportation,” said Abdel Sater, the analyst close to Hezbollah.

It is probably not the payment for voter transport on voting day that worries observers — even if it is an illegal practice — but clientelism is already being practiced on a large scale by most candidates. This includes absurd services such as offering discounts on beauty treatments day for women or a beer and ping pong party with candidate supporters. There are also more “serious” aids such as the distribution of food coupons in Hezbollah’s electoral strongholds. Or in some cases, paying the neighborhood’s generator bill, medicine or hospital bill.

“In-kind support is tantamount to vote buying and bribes,” LADE Executive Director Aly Sleem said.

As far as vote buying is concerned, the rate has already started to fluctuate depending on the size of the constituency and the votes requested. We are talking about a sum that varies between $100 to $1,000, a rate that could gradually increase from now until voting day.

This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour.

During each election, millions of dollars are spent on communication, clientelism and vote buying at each election, all of which trample the applicable electoral law.In the Metn electoral district, the Murr dynasty wants to carry on the tradition. From the top of Bteghrin down to the coast to Amaret Chalhoub where the family’s headquarters is located, the roads are filled with giant photos of...