Elections, Lebanon

Giving Expats the Vote: No Real Impact on “Sectarian Balance”?

It’s a little bit cheeky to have another post on the meaninglessness of proposed electoral reforms when we just got done discussing lowering the voting age, but I think this is worth discussing. ElectionGuerilla makes the point succinctly:

It’s helpful if we recognize that many of the arguments related to the debate on electoral reform stem purely from… political self-interest. As much as anything, the issue of expat voting shows this.

The argument is that expat voting would ensure ‘sectarian balance’.

First: Numbers. The voter register already includes all the citizens who have the right to vote, whether they are resident here or not. No new expat voters will be added unless Lebanon changes its citizenship laws.

Second: Impact. Under the current electoral system, or any new system that uses ‘regional districts, I would argue that expat voting – like lowering the voting age – will have limited confessional impact on the results. Christian expats will cast ballots for the districts where they are already registered and, in most cases, will have the chance only to vote for Christian MPs; something similar applies to Muslim expats. There are only a few areas that are sufficiently ‘multi-confessional’ that expat voting (like voting age) could conceivably make a confessional difference.

In fact, the major impact of allowing expat voting is that it would probably increase voter turnout in districts where a sizeable proportion of the electorate lives overseas. And this is the key: increasing voter turnout has a major impact on the “intra-confessional” politics of Lebanon. The reason why LF wants expat voting is not just that they simply want Christians to vote: they believe that expat voting allows their party to have a better chance of winning more votes than their opponents in Christian districts. That’s also why Kateab want it. That’s also why FPM wants it. And that’s also why Amal, Hezbollah and Future MPs – also parties with large constituencies overseas – supported the idea when it was debated in parliament in 2008.

Experiences of expat voting around the world shows that it is established or radicalized parties who benefit most from it, rather than independent or non-affiliated candidates, whose popularity usually rests on their local reputation in a community. This is especially the case if the parties have organized structures overseas, as do all Lebanese parties.

That doesn’t mean I think expat voting is a bad idea. I support it, especially if it ensure all Lebanese citizens get the right to vote. It’s just that i’d prefer to see some more logic and honesty in the wider political debate and not just on this blog.

Meanwhile, another reader, Ghassan Karam, points to an important feature of the proposed law to allow expats to vote: the fact that they will be required to vote in person at embassies and consulates:

المادة 104:

يحق لكل لبناني غير مقيم على الأراضي اللبنانية أن يمارس حق الاقتراع في السفارات والقنصليات اللبنانية وفقاً لأحكام هذا القانون، شرط أن يكون اسمه وارداً في القوائم الانتخابية وأن لا يكون ثمة مانع قانوني يحول دون حقه في الاقتراع.

المادة 110:

يجري الاقتراع في الخارج قبل عشرة أيام على الأكثر من الموعد المعين للإنتخابات في لبنان، حسب الدوائر الإنتخابية المعنية، بواسطة ظروف مصمَّغة غير شفافة من نموذج واحد تعتمدها وزارة الداخلية والبلديات وممهورة بخاتمها.

تفتح صناديق الاقتراع من الساعة السابعة صباحاً وحتى الساعة العاشرة ليلاً.

يوقع رئيس القلم الظرف ويسلمه إلى الناخب بعد أن يتحقق من هويته وورود إسمه على القائمة الإنتخابية.

يقترع الناخب بواسطة بطاقة الهوية اللبنانية أو جواز سفره اللبناني العادي الصالح.

يلزم الناخب بدخول المعزل ويضع في الظرف ورقة واحدة تشتمل على أسماء المرشحين الذين يريد انتخابهم ويضع بيده الظرف في صندوق الاقتراع.

يثبت اقتراع الناخب بتوقيعه أو بوضع بصمته وتوقيع أحد أعضاء قلم الاقتراع بجانب إسمه على لائحة الشطب الخاصة بكل عملية إنتخابية.

In the case of the United States, this will mean that if you don’t live in Washington, New York, or Los Angeles, you’ll have to travel to one of those cities to cast a vote. (Which, given the traffic in Lebanon these days, may not take as long as traveling to your ‘ancestral village’ from Beirut).

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10 thoughts on “Giving Expats the Vote: No Real Impact on “Sectarian Balance”?

  1. Why don’t Lebanese have a system similar to that of the Italian Parliament whereas expats select their own MPs…
    Otherwise some Roberto or William who’s parents had immigrated to South America or USA in 1600’s will get to make decisions on a country they have never heard of…

    Posted by danny | February 8, 2010, 6:37 pm
  2. Since transparency is the last thing on the mind of the Lebanese government the following rough estimates might help clarify the picture.

    My starting point is the estimate that the Lebanese population is around 4.2 million people. A rather quick analysis of the Lebanese population pyramid reveals that about 1.7 million people are under the age of 21, which means that the voter registration rolls of everyone in Lebanon would be around 2.5 million.
    But this is where it becomes interesting; the Ministry of the interior has on its voter rolls 3.3 million voters. If one is to subtract the 2,5 from the 3,3 then we get a rough estimate of 800,000 registered Lebanese citizens who are living abroad.
    ( The 1.7 figure is probably accurate because one can assume that very few of the under 21 represent expats and since the governments own figures claim that lowering the voting age from 21 to 18 adds 280,000 votes. It is safe to assume that each of the lower 3 years age band represents a little bit more than 280,000 since Lebanons population structure resembles a pyramid.)
    What does all of the above mean? If the figures are reasonably accurate then all the potential expat vote is 800,000 and I do not see how more than 10% would be in a position to make the required trek to the embassy/consulate. This implies that the total expat vote under the current conditions will not be more than 80,000 spread all across the country. This seems to support the idea that unless election winning margins are very narrow the marginal votes from expats will probably not change the current results under the current system by much.
    Could it be that there are more expat Christians and so in the aggregate the Christian leaders will be able to argue in favour of maintaining their present exceptional treatment for one more day/month/year?

    ((Please keep in mind that all the above is my own personal estimate).

    Posted by ghassan karam | February 8, 2010, 9:28 pm
  3. There are two issues related to expat voting. First, the constitution enshrines the right of “persons of Lebanese origin” to vote
    Second, there is no mechanism for Lebanese people living abroad to vote, which is also their constitutional right.

    In both cases, it’s not a question of constitutional or legal rights, but the mechanisms to allow their implementation ie: voting at embassies, etc…

    HOWEVER, when comparing to other countries, another issue arises. In France, for instance, where voting is based on residence (rather than “area of origin”), expats can only vote in Presidential elections (direct suffrage) and Senatorial elections on seats specifically earmarked for expats (rather than regions of France). In the US, expats are allowed to vote for any federal level office through the states they were last registered in before leaving the country.

    So if Lebanon were to follow France’s example, expats would not vote for anything, since all elections (parliamentay and municipal) are based on districts. If Lebanon were to follow the US example, elections would have to be based on state (mohafaza) district. So in either case, expat voting SHOULD mean a complete overhaul of the system.

    Posted by Gobbeltygook | February 9, 2010, 3:39 am
  4. Addendum: French expats can choose to register in the electoral district where they were born, last resided, last owned a home, or one of the districts where any of their ancestors up to four generations was registered. HOWEVER, they still can only vote for the Presidential elections, referenda and the “Assembly of French Expatriates” while abroad. If they wish to vote in the parliamentary, municipal or other local elections, they have to travel and vote in that electoral district.

    Posted by Gobbeltygook | February 9, 2010, 3:48 am
  5. I think there’s a gross under-estimation of the number of Expat voters. 80,000 is smaller than the number of Lebanese residing in Montreal. I dont think Carlos Ghosn would vote in the Lebanese elections, but I strongly believe the number of people that would vote is still very significant. Im not going to throw in random numbers, but considering our small electoral population, I would say there’s a decent percentage out there.

    I also dont think the 3.3 million covers all the expats for one reason: a lot of them dont have Lebanese IDs, even some of those that go back and forth on a yearly basis, why? Because the Lebanese ID is useless to a citizen of another country when he cant even use it to vote.

    A question I have when it comes to “Expat votes” is what exactly is the definition of an Expat? Is it someone who was born in Lebanon and hence was registered with the Mokhtar? Or someone that neednt be born in Lebanon but got his Ikhraj Qayd done at a later stage? I dont see how Electionguerilla’s “First” argument holds true? What if my parents both hold Lebanese IDs and are hence in the Register of Voters, but I dont carry one since I was born in Timbuktu and carry its passport? Am I not allowed to register myself and vote? I think a higher priority than allowing the Expatriates to vote is to reform and clarify our nationality laws.


    I dont see why its so important for us to follow the French or American expat voting system?

    Posted by A Purple Monkey | February 9, 2010, 4:59 am
  6. PurpleMonkey,
    The post did not say that the total number of expat registered voters was 80,000. The rough estimate is that only 10 % of the 800,000 eligible voters will participate and thus the 80,000.
    If an expat is not holding a Lebanese citizenship then she is not an expat is she? 🙂 Don’t mix up those of a Lebanese descendancy with actual expats or recent immigrants.
    To offer Lebanese descedants the citizenship and the vote would be similar to the UK offering the right to vote to ma large proportion of the US residents , the Austarlian residents and New Zealanders. It is a silly idea that cannot fly.

    Posted by ghassan karam | February 9, 2010, 10:37 am
  7. Purple Monkey

    If you don’t have a Lebanese ID, you can’t vote.

    The definition of an “expat”, as far as the electoral reform issue is concerned, is a person who is a Lebanese citizen (with a Lebanese ID or passport) who is living overseas.

    If both of your parents are Lebanese but you were born in Canada and got Canadian citizenship ONLY, then you can’t vote. This assumes that your parents never bothered to register you at the Lebanese embassy and process your paperwork so that you could get Lebanese citizenship as well.

    If, on the other hand, your parents went to the embassy and registered your birth so that it went onto your father’s ikhraj qayd, then you are eligible to get your Lebanese ID or passport, and then you CAN vote.

    So what Ghassan is saying makes sense. The enormous numbers of people of Lebanese descent in the diaspora include many who don’t actually have Lebanese citizenship, and so are not entitled to vote.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | February 9, 2010, 10:40 am
  8. To QN
    – Why use the derogatory term “sectarian” all the time instead of a more neutral and significant term such as “communal”?

    – Why reduce the debate surrounding expat voting to the issue of communal balance?
    Why not take into consideration other elements such as the interests of the patronage networks (reinforcement, internationalisation, cost reduction…) and other effects, such as the dilution of local issues or the introduction of voter registration (a feature that doesn’t exist in our current electoral system… but that would be managed by Foreign Affairs)…

    Posted by worriedlebanese | February 13, 2010, 11:17 am
  9. WorriedLebanese

    The reason for the focus on the COMMUNAL 😉 balance is because this is what the politicians are interested in. Everything else you mention (patronage networks, voter registration, etc.) are hugely important issues. But the point of this post was to directly address the rhetoric about “balancing” the under-21’s with the expats, which, as we’ve seen, is a very silly argument.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | February 13, 2010, 6:07 pm
  10. I’m not too sure about your assumptions QN.
    I don’t believe the public discourse reflects the interests of politicians, and that their rhetorical arguments are meant to be “meaningful” in themselves.

    If you’re trying to test the validity of their argument in abstract terms, you will obviously find it unfounded. This is actually expected. This is not due to the fact that our political actors are psychologically handicapped or our system irrational, like many of our dogmatic pundits will have us believe. The problem is in the approach: it removes the argument from its rhetorical context and the political game, and by doing this misrepresents it and misreads it.

    You can actually extend this approach (the search for inner validity) to all elements in our political system that feature a “prominent” communal trait, and I’m sure you’ll get the same result. And this is due to the methodological problems that I have mentioned, and also a couple of epistemological ones: Communalism surely is a prominent feature (like a nose in the middle of the face), but it’s not the “engine”, the “dynamic principle” of our political system.

    Posted by worriedlebanese | February 14, 2010, 9:50 am

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