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EU EOM Preliminary statement: Vote-buying practices affected the voters’ free choice and resulted in a lack of level-playing field

Countries
Lebanon
Sources
EU
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This preliminary statement of the EU election observation mission (EU EOM) is delivered before the completion of the entire electoral process. Critical stages remain, including tabulation of results and electoral complaints. The EU EOM is now only in a position to comment on observation undertaken to date and will later publish a final report, including full analysis and recommendations for electoral reform. The EU EOM may also make additional statements on election-related matters as and when it considers it appropriate.

Summary

Although preparations were affected by limited financial and human resources, the election authorities delivered the 15 May parliamentary elections. They were overshadowed by widespread practices of vote buying and clientelism, which distorted the level playing field and seriously affected the voters’ choice. The campaign was vibrant but marred by various instances of intimidation, including on social media, and instances of campaign obstruction.
The online space was also distorted by prevalent information manipulation. In addition, for certain categories of citizens, the right to vote is still severely restricted. The legal framework for campaign finance suffers from serious shortcomings concerning transparency and accountability. While the freedom of speech was generally respected, the media failed to provide equal visibility and balanced coverage. Longstanding deficiencies in the legal framework remain unaddressed, as well as previous EU election recommendations, and would require urgent reforms.

  • The period after the 2018 parliamentary elections has been characterised by political instability and drastic deterioration of socio-economic conditions. The nationwide demonstrations of October 2019 against Lebanon’s economic woes and government corruption and mismanagement resulted in the fall of the government led by Prime Minister Saad Hariri. A long period of political uncertainty ensued as the economy continued to shrink, the currency lost eventually 90 per cent of its value and unemployment and poverty rates soared. The COVID-19 pandemic and the tragic explosion at Beirut harbour on 4 August 2020 compounded the already dire situation.

  • On election day, the EU EOM deployed 167 observers to all 26 minor districts of the country. Overall, the EU EOM visited 798 polling stations. Numerous localised tensions were reported. The lack of training of polling staff became clearly visible on election day, who showed a weak performance. Candidate agents were present in high numbers, controlling voter attendance and often displaying intrusive behaviour. The secrecy of the vote was not always guaranteed.

  • The legal framework constitutes an overall adequate basis for holding democratic elections, although important reforms are needed to address enduring and serious legislative gaps in various fields which fall short of the relevant international commitments to which Lebanon adheres. These include campaign finance regulations, principle of equality between men and women, equal suffrage, the right of certain categories of citizens to vote, the right to stand, the powers and functioning of the Supervisory Commission for Elections (SCE), certain media legal provisions. None of the 25 recommendations of the EU EOM Lebanon 2018 was implemented.

  • The district magnitude leads to significant differences in the ratio between voters and seats, which is inconsistent with the principle of equality of the vote. Also, the election law does not set out the criteria for allocating a certain number of seats to each district, which falls short of international good practice.

  • The Ministry of Interior and Municipalities (MoIM) and the local election administration were operating with severely reduced means due to the economic crisis. Due to the lack of financial and human resources, election preparations started very late, with the budget allocated less than a month before the elections. They were, however mostly on time, notably due to the support of the international community to the electoral management bodies. EU EOM observers reported varying performances by the local election administration, which often lacked basic information on deadlines and procedures. The SCE, in charge of monitoring compliance with campaign finance and media regulations, is not a full independent monitoring body; it lacked funds, qualified human resources, basic equipment, as well an adequate mandate and sanctioning power.

  • Both the MoIM and the SCE displayed a certain lack of transparency and provided little information about election preparations. In addition, activities dedicated by the authorities to voter and civic education were insufficient to adequately inform citizens about the elections and voting procedures.

  • The right to vote is severely restricted for certain categories of citizens, despite Lebanon’s international obligations. The voter register enjoyed general confidence among EU EOM interlocutors. However, the fact that voters cannot change their place of registration leads to many of them having to travel to another electoral district on election day. In the context of the economic crisis, this rigid provision did not facilitate voter participation.

  • While, in general, campaign was vibrant, it was also marred by instances of intimidation of candidates, and some cases of campaign obstruction.

  • The legal provisions for campaign finance generally do not guarantee transparency and accountability. The inadequate legal framework and poor oversight, including the lack of sanctioning mechanisms, allowed for the proliferation of vote-buying practices, affecting the level playing field and undermining the integrity of the voters’ choice.

  • Freedom of expression was mostly respected during the campaign period, although there were cases of intimidation and a number of incidents. In contradiction with the law, the media failed to provide equal visibility to all candidates and candidate lists. This was amplified by the unequal paid-for electoral content on the three major private television channels and by the unbalanced coverage of the politically affiliated media.

  • Freedom of speech online was curtailed by the law and by recurring intimidation practices.
    The election law did not reflect the increased use and specificity of social media and the SCE did not have an explicit mandate over violations on social media. Candidates largely used social media to campaign, including through boosted content. The online space was distorted by a widespread negative campaign by contestants, derogatory comments by social media users, several severe instances of intimidation against candidates, and manipulative attempts to impose narratives shared by pages and accounts affiliated to parties.

  • There were 118 women candidates (16.4 per cent) on the lists, a two per cent increase compared to previous elections. The parliament did not include in the legal framework positive measures to encourage equality between men and women and women’s representation in the decision-making bodies, in line with Lebanon’s international commitments.

The European Union Election Observation Mission (EU EOM) has been present in Lebanon since 27 March following an invitation from the Ministry of Interior and Municipalities. The mission is led by Chief Observer, György Hölvényi, Member of the European Parliament (Hungary). In total, the EU EOM deployed 167 observers from 27 EU Member States, Canada, Norway, and Switzerland, across the country to assess the whole electoral process against international obligations and commitments for democratic elections as well as the laws of Lebanon. A delegation of the European Parliament, headed by Brando Benifei, MEP, also joined the mission and fully endorses this Statement. On Election day, observers visited polling stations in all 26 minor districts, 73 during the opening, 658 during voting, and 67 during the closing and counting.

This preliminary statement is delivered prior to the completion of the election process. The final assessment of the elections will depend, in part, on the conduct of the remaining stages of the election process, in particular, the tabulation of results, and the handling of possible post-election day complaints and appeals. The EU EOM remains in the country to observe post-election developments and will publish a final report containing detailed recommendations within two months of the conclusion of the electoral process.

The EU EOM is independent in its findings and conclusions and adheres to the Declaration of Principles for International Election Observation endorsed at the United Nations in October 2005.