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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.

“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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