BEIRUT: Low voter turnout was the focus of the Washington-based National Democratic Institute’s election observation released Monday, a day after Lebanon’s first elections in nearly a decade. The statement noted a number of problems with the electoral process.
“While none of the shortcomings would appear to have had a significant effect on the outcome of the election, there was a palpable sense of voter apathy which translated into a voter turnout figure lower than that reported in 2009,” the statement read.
Turnout in 2009 was 54 percent.
Nicole Rowsell, a senior adviser at the NDI, told The Daily Star that expectations for voter turnout had been quite high among political stakeholders due to the length of time that had passed since the last parliamentary elections, the introduction of out-of-country voting, and the high number of first-time voters.
However, turnout during Sunday’s elections was reported at just 49.2 percent, significantly lower than the 56 percent turnout of the 2016 municipal elections.
NDI suggested a number of reasons for Sunday’s low voter engagement. One was that voters were frustrated that, despite the fact that “the new [electoral] law introduced many reforms, expectations were that the results would [maintain the] status quo.”
Despite the fact that some candidates campaigned for change, “because of the complexities of the law and the very steep competition, voters were uncertain that their choice would be able to take a seat, suggesting a general sense of malaise,” she said.
The NDI statement also noted that “Lebanon’s complex system of representation, which guarantees seats to many of the country’s diverse confessional groups, is not prone to dramatic swings or shifts in power.”
Peter MacKay, a former Canadian defense minister and attorney general and one of the leaders of the NDI mission, also criticized the “mystery” behind how candidates enter the political process. “There is still a lot of public mistrust and misunderstanding around the candidacy itself,” he said.
One of the statement’s recommendations was that “established political parties and newcomers must focus on clear policy solutions for citizen concerns, which voters can use to assess their performance.”
According to MacKay, one of the NDI’s most pressing observations was the lack of an independent, properly resourced election commission “with a mandate that actually gives it some teeth so it can truly be a watchdog and not a lapdog.”
Such a commission, the NDI statement said, should have full autonomy over its budget and a permanent staff.
While the NDI mission emphasized factors that contributed to low electoral participation, it and other NGOs observed violations of the electoral process that took place Sunday. The NDI delegation reported having both directly observed and having heard allegations of vote buying during polling.
Rowsell emphasized any citizens with information on vote buying should follow the legal process for reporting complaints. The statement also highlighted party affiliates had campaigned too close to voting centers, with party insignia even being worn inside polling stations.
The Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections also released a report the day after the vote.
It noted various issues, including that “in all regions in Lebanon, delegates of lists accompanied a large number of voters behind the polling booths, under the pretext of disability, without investigating the necessity of assistance, and without keeping records of the incidents,” the report read, adding that “this constitutes a clear violation of voting secrecy and [is a way] to pressure voters.”
LADE also noted a failure by media outlets, politicians – including President Michel Aoun – and a number of other candidates to respect the media blackout period.
LADE reported 222 incidents of intimidation and pressuring of voters.
Echoing the concerns of the EU Election Observation Mission from Sunday, the NDI statement lamented that “most polling places were inaccessible to those with disabilities and measures to help disabled voters were inadequate.”
The LADE report stated that there were 242 reported incidents of polling stations not being suitable for voters with special needs.
This situation drew criticism from MacKay, who highlighted that the Interior Ministry “had a very long time in anticipation of this election to make the necessary structural changes.” – Additional reporting by Gasia Trtrian and Hussein Bailoun