The countdown is on. For the second time in Lebanon's history, on May 6 and 8, expatriates are expected to take part in legislative elections in nearly 60 countries. The road has been long and arduous. After months of uncertainty, strikes, and errors in the registration of voters, more than 240,000 voters registered, with 225,624 on the final registration’s list. This year, Lebanese are called to the polls, with three times more registrations than in 2018, according to the Ministry of Interior’s final list of voters. That year, 82,965 Lebanese abroad had registered, but only a little more than half had actually voted on election day. The stakes are far from negligible. With more than 225,000 registered voters spread over 15 constituencies, the expatriate vote could tip the balance, as for example in North Lebanon III, which includes the four sub-districts of Batroun, Bcharre, Koura and Zgharta. With more than 26,000 registered voters, almost all of them Christians, non-resident voters represent 10 percent of the electorate, a quotient on their own.
L’Orient Today delved into the organization of the Lebanese diaspora's vote.
The expatriate vote has been threatened several times. The Parliament had adopted on October 19, 2021, an amendment to the electoral law concerning the vote of the Lebanese living abroad, allowing them to vote for the 128 members of the Parliament and not only for the six that were previously reserved for them (one per continent). The Free Patriotic Movement, which had been the only one to oppose these amendments, did not win their case and in December, the Constitutional Council rejected the appeal filed by the party. During this time, diaspora voters were expected to register by the November 20 deadline, despite the uncertainty and confusion of how their vote would be counted, given FPM’s appeal.
The question of financing has created uncertainty about the holding of elections abroad. In late January, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs asked Lebanese embassies to find donors to help cover their operating costs, while it was behind in paying diplomats' salaries and considering closing diplomatic missions abroad. In March, diplomats and directors in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs went on a two-day strike to demand their right to diplomatic rotations and appointments that had been pending for several months. With two months to go before the elections, the Lebanese state had still not released the funds needed to organize the voting operations. According to a diplomatic source at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a budget of three million dollars had been approved.
"We are working with the minimum possible because of the crisis. In 2018, for example, we had rented hotels for this purpose, while this year we are relying on places of worship or schools," she said.
Several groups of Lebanese abroad have denounced in the last few weeks some problems or mix-ups with the registration of voters, fearing that they will be discouraged to go to the polls. This is the case in Australia, Canada and France, where some Lebanese have pointed to malfunctions, such as long journeys to vote or polling stations assigned to different members of the same family several hours away from each other. These errors have fueled rumors of tampering, denied by the embassies and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. According to Rami Adwan, Lebanese ambassador to France contacted by L’Orient Today, voters residing in France came forward to report such anomalies to the chancellery.
"Except that these people were mistaken about their postal code, for example. For reasons of credibility and transparency, everything was managed by the ministry, and we did not have the power to manually modify the registrations," he said, adding that nearly 800 registrations out of 28,136 in France, were not entered correctly (for example, through a postal code error).
The same scenario occurred in Sydney, where the Consul General of Lebanon Charbel Macaron defended himself in a tweet of any political interference, maintaining that the voters "were geographically distributed according to the Australian postal codes, as they appeared on the registration forms.”
This was a diagnosis confirmed by some independent observers.
"There was no political will to torpedo the elections. We counted a few hundred errors during the registration process, which remains very marginal. These errors are mainly due to the incompetence of the Lebanese state in setting up an easy-to-access online system," explained Nancy Stephan, a member of The Lebanese Diaspora Network.
With the help of about 100 other members, she responds to dozens of requests every day from voters who cannot find their polling place.
"Embassies or consulates do not answer the phone," she said.
The Lebanese Association for Democracy in Elections (LADE), which ensures that the electoral process runs smoothly both before and on election days, is more confident than it was four years ago. Its executive director, Aly Sleem, explains that members of their team will be present in 30 countries.
"Everything is ready, but we have some fears. In 2018, there was a bit of chaos in terms of receiving voters in some offices, and ballot boxes could not be sent the next day because DHL was closed. That shouldn't happen this time," Sleem said.
A snapshot of some of the regions with the largest number of registered voters:
United Arab Emirates
In terms of organization, the embassies and consulates were able to rely on a budget from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but also on donations. These budgetary restrictions would have affected, for example, the holding of the vote in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, where on Sunday, 25,067 Lebanese are expected to be in one place in each city, with more expected to be voting in Dubai, given the number of corresponding polling stands in the consulate and embassy that have been designated to each location (37 in Dubai; 15 in Abu Dhabi). According to the embassy, there are around 20,000 registered voters in Dubai.
"We tried to get a much bigger center, but it could not be approved, because of the delays. So we expect congestion, but we hope that everything will go well," said Assaf Doumit, the consul general in Dubai. Free parking spaces have been provided, and even a valet parking, and tents will accommodate voters in this period of high heat.
"They should not be discouraged by these conditions! That's why we have planned buses, financed by personal donations, to take groups from different places in Dubai to avoid crowding at the consulate gates," said Stephan, of the Lebanese Diaspora Network.
In France, 40 mega-voting centers have been set up for the occasion, and more than 300 volunteers will be involved. There were 28,136 registered voters. A polling station is open per 100 registered voters in the same area, so most of the French regions have been covered.
"Some town halls have agreed to receive us on [election day] and to provide security, free of charge, which shows the great cooperation of France in the holding of this election," said Adwan, Lebanese ambassador to France.
After weeks of intense work, officials abroad say they are ready and confident that the turnout will be high.
"We work in difficult conditions, with few resources, few staff, and during vacations," said the ambassador.
The necessary material, such as lists or ballot boxes, was sent from Lebanon. On the other hand, the sending of ballpoint pens or paper handkerchiefs from Lebanon provoked mockery, given the state’s bankruptcy.
In the United States, 34 voting centers and more than 70 staff and volunteers will greet the approximately 28,100 voters on Sunday, according to the Chargé d’affaires Wael Hachem, in Washington, D.C.
"Everything is ready. The materials have arrived and have been distributed across the country. We are working under difficult circumstances, but we hope for success and that everything will go smoothly," Hachem told L’Orient Today.
In 2018, 50 percent of the 10,000 registered voters actually voted.
In Canada, 11 megacenters, including two in Montreal, where there is a high concentration of Lebanese, have been planned.
"We started our campaign as early as October 2021 to allow residents to update their identity documents, which technically allowed people to have the means to vote," said Fadi Ziadeh, Lebanon's ambassador to Canada.
According to the Ministry of Interior’s list, around 27,447 Lebanese (out of 400,000 residents) registered this time, compared to 11,000 in 2018. However, it is important to note that in some cases, numbers varied slightly between the Ministry of Interior’s list and registration numbers provided by embassies or consulates.
"Nearly 40 percent of Lebanese residents in Canada are under 21, which partly explains why only [28,100] people registered," the ambassador continued.
On the African continent, 6,070 registered voters were counted in Côte d'Ivoire this year against 2,300 in 2018. Six polling stations were thus planned, including four in Abidjan, the capital.
"We had fears until the last minute about the financial means for the preparations, but fortunately we got the green light on Monday from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to be able to finance the whole organization," explains the consul in Côte d'Ivoire Joe Turk. But due to limited means, the embassy had to rely on donations from Lebanese residents in the country.
"A Lebanese, not affiliated to any party, paid 1,400 dollars for the rental of a center in Abidjan," Turk said.
Lebanese religious or secular and independent schools have been requisitioned.
"We ruled out from the start schools affiliated with parties such as Hezbollah or Amal," Turk added.
In Nigeria, 2,580 voters registered out of 35,000 residents. With a small number of voters, the organization was much simpler than in other countries.
"However, we hope that the next elections will be done by electronic voting," said the ambassador in Lagos, Houssam Diab.
All the diplomatic sources interviewed insisted on the transparency of the ballot and in particular on the lifting of the ballot boxes. Once the vote is over, the ballot boxes will be sealed, equipped with GPS trackers and collected in the embassies and consulates of all the countries concerned to be immediately sent to Beirut. "It is therefore totally impossible that errors or trafficking take place," said Ambassador to Canada, Fadi Ziadeh.
This article was originally published in French on L'Orient-Le Jour