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Going rate for a vote in Lebanon? $700

In a close race, those contesting the June 7 parliamentary elections are pulling out their checkbooks.

Electoral billboards for Free Patriotic Movement's leader Michel Aoun are displayed in Beirut May 27, 2009. The billboards read : "Vote Orange." (Sharif Karim/Reuters)

BEIRUT — Zeina Halabi lives in London, but that hasn't stopped politicians in Lebanon from trying to buy her vote. One week before Lebanon's June 7 parliamentary elections, the 25-year-old's voting district is hotly contested. Two competing political parties have offered the graduate student an airline ticket home in exchange for her vote.

Halabi turned down the first offer, from the U.S.-backed March 14 coalition. But she accepted a $700 plane ticket offered by Hezbollah ally Michel Aoun’s political party, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM).

Halabi, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, justifies her decision by saying she already planned to vote for the FPM, so she’s not technically selling her vote. Still, the whole experience has left her feeling “dirty.”

“I was tortured for a few days, but gave in,” Halabi wrote in an email detailing the experience. “I’m literally saving my family money and my vote isn’t being bought. I would have voted for the party either way."

Lebanon’s ideologically charged electoral race is too close to call, and candidates and parties are trying to get every vote they can — whether legally or not. The parties are especially targeting those in the Lebanese diaspora, such as Halabi, with offers of free flights home. By law, only citizens inside Lebanon on election day can cast ballots. And the effort to bring voters home has stretched around the world, from San Francisco to Dubai.

"The [U.S. allied Future Party] offered to fly the whole family to Beirut if [my husband] would vote for Saad Hariri and his lot," said a Dubai-based Lebanese voter who asked to remain anonymous. "[My husband] basically told them: 'No — I cannot be bought and I will not be voting for Saad Hariri and neither will my wife.'"

It is legal in Lebanon for political parties to pay voters’ transportation costs to voting stations — whether it’s a $1 bus ride or a $1,500 plane ticket. But it is illegal to put conditions on the ticket — like stipulating whom voters should cast their ballots for. In Lebanon it seems this thin legal line been interpreted liberally. Or, from Halabi's experience, simply ignored.

“I received a phone call from the local [FPM] representatives here in London,” Halabi wrote on May 28. “They asked if I was interested in flying back to Beirut to cast my vote. I met them a few days ago, got my ticket, and confirmed my outgoing flight."

“They did test me a few times … to see if I knew whom I was voting for. I jokingly asked them to please not insult my integrity. Everyone else is giving in; I at least [am not] selling my vote,” she wrote.

Buying flights may be skirting the law, but unabashed, illegal vote buying is occurring elsewhere inside Lebanon. One voter in a hotly contested district north of Beirut told GlobalPost that one party had offered her and her five-person family $1,000 per vote.