Going rate for a vote in Lebanon? $700

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.

“We know from previous years and now that vote buying is a common trend in Lebanon,” said Lynne Ghossein, program manager at the Lebanese Transparency Association.

Ghossein said Lebanon's parliament passed a new voting law last year that was supposed to reform Lebanon’s electoral system. But political and ideological enemies proved perfect bedfellows when the reforms threatened to bring Lebanon’s voting laws up to international standards. Both the U.S. allied political parties — which present themselves as proponents of democracy and transparency — and the so-called Syrian and Iranian backed Hezbollah — whose leaders tout their party as the least corrupt in Lebanon — voted against key provisions of the electoral law.

Among the skipped-over provisions was ballot reform. Lebanon has no standard ballot: The ballots can be any shape, size and color, and can be printed on any kind of paper, in different fonts and font sizes.

Voters can bring their own “prepared” ballot to the polls, or they can fill them out in the polling booth. But because Lebanese voters cast ballots for a “list” of candidates, it’s much easier to take a ballot provided by a political party, with its list of candidates’ names already filled in. The ballots can be easily marked — through different orders of names, fonts or colors. Party representatives then oversee the vote count, and keep track of the marked ballots they see, according to Richard Chambers, Lebanon country director for the International Foundation for Election Systems (IFES).

“A prepared ballot [can] be designed in a certain way, that if need be, it can be traced back to either a voter or the family of the voter,” Chambers said. “So a prepared ballot is something which could undermine the secrecy of the vote; you are not anonymous when you cast the ballot.”

Election monitors say this reinforces a system of patronage that keeps Lebanese political parties in power.

“The usual trend is that they buy votes directly, or indirectly through the provisions of services. Almost all candidates have their own organizations [that] provide services to their districts," Ghossein said.

Ghossein said Lebanon’s weak central government doesn’t provide enough services to its citizens, so politicians and political parties fill the void. Using personal or state appropriated funds, they provide voters with favors and services like health care, loans and schooling, in exchange for votes.

The provision of services “increases the closer we get to the elections,” Ghossein said.

IFES's Chambers said the parliament missed an opportunity to prevent mass vote buying by making it much harder to trace the vote.

"There was a big push to adopt what is called standard, pre-printed ballot papers,” Chambers said. “This means a ballot paper that is official, it was formalized, it was using standard sizes, standard font, and standard weight and standard color. It was pushed by civil society and supported by [Interior] Minister [Ziad] Baroud, but it was rejected by parliament."

Baroud, who before assuming his government post one year ago was a civil society lawyer and strong backer of electoral reform, described the final version of the electoral law as a "cup half full."

Despite the lack of reform, the 2008 voting law does curb spending for candidates and advertising regulations. A Constitutional Council to enforce those laws was selected on May 26, less than two weeks before the election. Gaelle Kibranian, the Lebanese Transparency Association’s program director, said the 2008 law is not perfect, but it does represent a step forward, albeit a small one.

“We will push for more reform in 2013,” she said.

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