An EU monitoring mission has called for a reform of Lebanon's electoral finance framework, after a report found that May's parliamentary elections "were overshadowed by widespread practices of vote buying and clientelism".
In its final report, the EU's Election Observation Mission said "the legal framework for campaign finance suffers from serious shortcomings concerning transparency and accountability". The devastating economic situation in Lebanon had only made the practice of vote buying more prolific, the report said.
"Numerous cases of vote buying and clientelism have been reported. Distributing 'bread bags', food parcels and medical supplies as well as generators, solar power and fuel were among the practices used by certain political parties and candidates, often in their offices, to unduly influence the voters.
"Instances of intimidation, including of female candidates, destruction of campaign material and the obstruction of campaign activities have also been observed and reported from several districts."
At a press conference where the results were released, Gyorgy Holvenyi, a member of the European Parliament, noted that the 2022 electoral framework remained almost unchanged compared to the last time Lebanon went to the polls in 2018 — with none of the 25 recommendations issued by the previous EU EOM acted upon.
"The monitoring of campaign finance is limited to the electoral campaign bank account that the candidates and lists have to open when registering, with total bank secrecy on other personal accounts of the candidates or of their close relatives," the report said.
"This allows candidates to avoid using their electoral bank account, and potentially channel illicit sums of money through totally opaque bank accounts, to which neither the SCE nor other institutions have access," it said, referring to Lebanon's heavily underfunded Supervisory Commission for Elections.
The EU mission said the SCE should be given the mandate to audit the personal accounts of candidates and their families. It noted that while there are supposed spending limits on campaigning, the SCE "had no resources to assess the reliability of the financial information provided by candidates and the respect of these ceilings".
It recommended that the SCE be established as a fully independent body, separate from the Ministry of Interior. EU observers reported a highly-monetised campaign, "where a culture of in-kind and financial handouts for electoral purposes by institutions owned or managed by candidates or parties, prevailed".
"These practices are due to a legal provision according to which the distribution of services and payments during the campaign period are not subject to the spending ceilings and do not fall under the control of the SCE if the same have been provided for three years prior to the elections. The candidates are not obliged to report these to the SCE, which thus has no control over such practices," the mission said.
The EOM called for strict regulation of the goods, payments and services given by institutions owned or managed by candidates and parties.
In the elections in May, Iran-backed Hezbollah and its allies lost a parliamentary majority, paving the way for a greater political stalemate and delays in passing the much-needed economic reforms that Lebanon needs.