BEIRUT: The European Union Election Observation Mission emphasized the lack of political representation for women at a presentation of its final report on Lebanon’s May 6 parliamentary elections Tuesday. Chief Observer Elena Valenciano told The Daily Star after the presentation that a proposed quota for women on candidate lists was of greater significance than other electoral rules.
“Why are all quotas respected but not that which for me is the most important, which is equal representation between men and women?” Valenciano asked. “Society is divided into many confessions but primarily divided in two – men and women – so this is the most important quota.”
“A democracy that does not represent half of its citizens by gender is a democracy that needs to be improved,” she said.
While the quota, accompanied by appropriate enforcement mechanisms, was the primary suggestion of the mission’s six “priority recommendations,” it also advocated an amendment to the nationality law to give Lebanese women the right to pass citizenship on to their children.
The mission also recommended that voters be assigned to polling stations without confessional or gender-based separations, further autonomy be given to the Electoral Supervisory Committee, the time frame for the ESC to audit financial reports be extended and a clear distinction be established between paid and unpaid media coverage.
The call for a quota was taken up by Joelle Abou Farhat, co-founder of NGO Women in Front, which called for the imposition of such a quota before the election. Abou Farhat criticized politicians who she said had promised to endorse a quota, but ultimately failed to do so, as well as parties that included a limited number of women on their lists. “It wasn’t enough, it was just to shine their image,” she told The Daily Star.
“If we don’t endorse a quota, women will not make it,” Abou Farhat said. She said that her organization would use “all the tools available” to ensure the quota is implemented for the next elections.
She also criticized the high financial barrier for campaigning in the elections. The new electoral law raised the candidate nomination fee from LL2 million ($1,300) to LL8 million, which the report noted could be “particularly prohibitive for some women, as they may face financial constraints.
The report also noted the “significant differences in spending capacity between candidates,” impacting, for example, the ability to spend on media appearances.
Abou Farhat said Women in Front was looking to address the latter issue by creating a new TV program to provide greater airtime to women discussing political issues such as waste, electricity and oil and gas, which, she said, would make the “mindset of the Lebanese [about women in politics] ... different in two to three years.”
The proposed quota met with opposition prior to the election from groups such as Hezbollah.
The Daily Star contacted the group for a comment on the EU’s report but did not receive a response before going to print.
Abou Farhat said that anyone against the proposal should “give us an alternative to increase the number of women in politics in Lebanon. If they have different perspectives, ideas, we are ready to listen and to follow up with them.”
Valenciano said that the quota was a “key recommendation” despite the fact that it “has some resistance in certain political parties.”
“You’re in danger of losing half of the intelligence capabilities of half of your society,” she said. “We are always trying to push for greater representation of women, even if there are difficulties.”
The official said that the mission had a “positive impression of the totality of the elections in general,” qualifying this by noting, “Of course there are problems that arise in every election anywhere in the world.” Deputy Chief Observer Jose Antonio de Gabriel downplayed the significance of infringements, saying, “We did not see any solid, deliberate, systematic action that aim[ed] at altering the way people chose [to vote].”
Not everyone was so happy with the conduct of the elections, however. Omar Kabboul, the director of the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections, noted that at least 5,000 of 7,000 violations that were reported to the organization during the elections were verified.
Kabboul noted “major infringements,” particularly regarding out-of-country voting and early voting for polling station staff.
Drawing attention to female representation was “not wrong,” Kabboul said, noting that his organization also devoted significant attention to the issue, but said the EU mission had “disregarded the violations.” He said that LADE, with its 1,280 observers compared to the EU mission’s 131, was able to monitor the conduct of the elections in greater detail. “They didn’t have the capacity that LADE had, which could be why they focused on the generics rather than the details.”