Lebanon’s Hezbollah says the country’s large diaspora should not vote in the country’s elections next year because sanctions would hinder its ability to campaign abroad.
But analysts accuse the Iran-backed group and allies of fearing that voters would massively reject traditional parties.
The vote of the Lebanese diaspora, which voted for the first time in 2018, is under tight scrutiny owing to the high number of citizens who have left the country in the past two years.
Its worst economic crisis caused nation-wide protests for several months when it began in 2019.
There are no precise figures regarding the number of emigrants, but MPs The National spoke to said they believe that between 200,000 and 300,000 people had left the country in the past two years.
They are widely believed to be dissatisfied with the country’s ruling political class, which is blamed for causing the crisis after decades of corruption.
“At this point, I’d vote for anyone except for those who are in power,” said Cesar Kastoun, a finance professional in New York.
Despite the controversy regarding the diaspora’s vote, the 2017 electoral law has yet to be amended.
It calls for the non-resident Lebanese citizens to vote for six additional MPs next year, and the Foreign Affairs Ministry has issued a circular allowing them to register between October 1 and November 20 to vote.
The elections, initially scheduled for May, are expected to be moved to March 27 following statements by Prime Minister Najib Mikati last week.
Parliament’s vice-president, Elie Ferzli, said this was to avoid the need for campaigning during Ramadan, which will fall in April, and that while technical amendments to the law to change the elections’ date would be straightforward, the diaspora’s participation posed a “serious problem”.
Negotiations among members of an informal parliamentary committee indicate they want to change the law so the diaspora does not vote for six MPs next year. The debate within the committee is focused on whether Lebanese living abroad will vote for politicians representing their district of origin in Lebanon – as happened in 2018 – or not vote at all.
Four members of the committee The National spoke to said that while they support the diaspora voting, Hezbollah and its ally, the Amal Movement, did not. Hezbollah’s representative in the committee, Ali Fayad, did not respond to requests for comment.
The four MPs said it was difficult, if not impossible, to organise elections for six MPs abroad as specified in the law, which respects the country’s sectarian-sharing power agreement. Assumptions regarding the distribution of Lebanese citizens around the world have coloured discussions, with some suggesting that the Maronite seat should go to the US MP, the Shiite Muslim seat to the Africa MP and the Sunni Muslim seat to the Middle East MP.
But the idea of arbitrarily appointing a continent to a sect is unpopular. Mr Ferzli, the committee’s head, described this system as “illogical”; MP Samir Jisr, from the Sunni Muslim Future Movement, called it “anti-constitutional”; and Mr Aoun, from the Christian Free Patriotic Movement, said it was “silly”.
“I think that we have to do everything so that expatriates can vote for all members of Parliament, not just six MPs,” said MP Bilal Abdallah, from the Druze Progressive Socialist Party.
On Friday, Mr Fayad told Lebanese TV station Al Jadeed that while the party had not adopted a definite position, the diaspora’s vote was “sensitive” and his party had asked for its postponement because of “difficulties” “in some essential countries, like America, European countries and Canada”.
Mr Fayad referenced the large Shiite Muslim community in Michigan, an example echoed among his colleagues.
“They say, there’s a lot of Shiites in Michigan. How are we going to communicate? Suppose our supporters vote for our candidate. They’ll be exposed to the American government,” Mr Ferzli said.
Mr Jizr said: “They are reasonable arguments, but we [the Future Movement)] are for the expatriate vote.”
Hezbollah in the spotlight
The US designated Hezbollah a terrorist organisation in 1997 but this did not stop many Lebanese from voting for the group three years ago. One of the MPs to receive the most votes among non-resident Lebanese in 2018 was Hezbollah member Amin Sherri, who was personally blacklisted by the US the following year.
Voting for Hezbollah in Lebanese elections in the US is illegal yet it was not criminalised in 2018. David Daoud, a lawyer by training and a research analyst on Hezbollah at United against a Nuclear Iran, an advocacy group in New York, expects Washington to turn a blind eye once again next year.
“It seems that we have placed not harming Lebanon’s very fragile stability as our number one priority ahead of taking action against Hezbollah,” he said.
Hezbollah’s recent imports of US sanctioned Iranian fuel, which it says it has donated in part to hospitals, bakeries and water organisations, has triggered no legal backlash.
Mr Daoud said party supporters were allowed to ostensibly show their affiliation by carrying Hezbollah flags in the US. Independent advocacy, as long as it is done without party authorisation or payment, is not criminalised, according to him.
“What the US criminalises is material support, which is defined as training, expert advice or assistance, services and provision of personnel to a designated Foreign Terrorist Organisation,” he said.
Last year, Hezbollah was banned by Germany. Some European countries and the EU make a distinction between its political and armed activities.
Lebanese electoral experts argue that the real reason Hezbollah is against the diaspora vote is because it fears expatriates will massively reject traditional political parties because of the crash of the Lebanese economy. It is a worry that unites all parties, despite their assertions to the contrary.
“They are putting the blame on Hezbollah. But I believe there is no political will,” said Aly Sleem, executive director of the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections.
“Most established parties with representation in Parliament fear the free, liberal and uncontrolled vote of expatriates,” agreed Ghassan Moukheiber, a former independent MP who has been involved in electoral reform since 1995.
While expatriate turnout in 2018 was low, at close to 47,000, Mr Sleem said this number was expected to at least double in 2022.
“It’s a real threat,” he said. “Some candidates win seats with as little as 77 votes.” At 56.4 per cent, expatriate turnout was slightly higher in 2018 than for in-country residents, 49.2 per cent.
At the time, only one member of civil society was elected to Parliament. More independents in 2022 would represent a headache for Hezbollah, said Mr Daoud.
“They’d rather not deal with more opposing voices as Lebanon’s fragility increases,” he said. “Even so-called pro-western traditional political parties like the Future Movement and the PSP [Progressive Socialist Party] talk a big game but have to play ball.”
Cancelling the vote altogether would come as a disappointment for expatriates, both young and old, said John Zabbal, 25, a law student in Canada. His father, who left Lebanon decades ago and voted in 2018 for a traditional party, plans to back reformists this time around.
“For sure, he’ll give the youth a chance. You’re not going to vote for the same people again and again and expect different results, right?”