Money was the main voter in Lebanon’s parliamentary elections on 15 May. In the financially devastated country where poverty now affects about 80 percent of the population, it has become all the more common for voters to ask their candidate: “How much will you pay for my vote?”
“It’s like a slave auction,” an unsuccessful candidate in the eastern district of Zahle told The Cradle.
In the northernmost district of Akkar – one of Lebanon’s poorest regions – another candidate said he had expected to be peppered with questions about his manifesto, but the most frequent query during his election campaign, again, was: “How much will you pay for the vote?”
But those who paid for votes will rarely admit this on the record; Lebanon’s electoral law forbids bribery, and so although undeniably a common practice, the issue is kept under wraps, for the most part.
To arm or disarm?
Lebanon’s 2022 elections took place along the country’s traditional political divide: Hezbollah and its allies, on one side of the fence – versus those loyal to the United States and Saudi Arabia, on the other. This division has only intensified in recent years, given the regional wars in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, and the intense global polarization that has grown out of multilateralism.
Oddly, amid a national economic collapse, the issue of Hezbollah’s weapons remained a dominant topic in a number of electoral campaigns and their affiliated media.
Those who demand the disarmament of Hezbollah say an armed political party is a violation of national sovereignty, and are fiercely supported by the US and Saudi Arabia. This is despite Hezbollah’s lead role in ending 22 years of Israeli occupation in the south.
The Lebanese resistance group and its supporters continue to insist that these weapons are essential to defend Lebanon against attacks by Israel, a frequent, serial violator of the country’s territorial integrity.
After a five-month absence over a diplomatic row, Saudi Ambassador to Lebanon Walid al-Bukhari returned to Beirut on 7 April, five weeks before the elections. At his lavish home, east of the capital, he hosted large numbers of Lebanese politicians, security chiefs, and clerics in advance of elections, and openly visited several districts in an attempt to influence voters to cast their ballots against Hezbollah and its allies.
There was a lot of talk about huge sums of money paid into these elections by Riyadh, whose objective was to overturn Hezbollah’s majority alliance in the Lebanese parliament, by supporting the Christian, right-wing Lebanese Forces (LF) candidates and other reliable allies.
But this Saudi/US-backed anti-Hezbollah front is not limited only to political parties. Today, Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and civil society organizations are rife and active in Lebanon, receiving foreign funding and fielding large numbers of parliamentary candidates for the first time.
The NGOs – many of them liberal and foreign-funded – mostly oppose Hezbollah and are cozy with western capitals, especially Washington.
In an unprecedented turn of events, 13 NGO/civil society candidates won seats in the parliamentary election, 12 of whom were first time candidates. Only three independent candidates won, by comparison.
Amid the severe current economic crisis in Lebanon, cash really is king, and this is especially the case for those who can spend dollars liberally. The lira, Lebanon’s national currency, has plummeted since late 2019, losing around 90 percent of its value in less than three years.
While Hezbollah’s opponents also accuse the party of being aflood with fresh dollars from Iran, the party does not deny this, and considers those funds essential support for its resistance against Israel.
A very flawed democracy
It is therefore difficult to discuss ‘democratic elections’ in Lebanon, while flagrant violation of laws that prohibit electoral funding are ingrained in the process.
But corruption and bribery have for decades been ignored in this small Levantine state of five million people. Strategically-located little Lebanon, after all, lies on the fault line between east and west, caught between two opposing axes, and remains a sitting target for foreign power plays.
A preliminary report released on 17 May by the European Union Election Observation Mission in Lebanon states that “the elections were overshadowed by widespread practices of vote buying and clientelism, which led to a distortion of the principle of equal opportunity and seriously affected the choices of voters.”
The report also maintains that “the legal framework for campaign finance suffers from serious shortcomings concerning transparency and accountability.”
One of the electoral candidates interviewed by The Cradle described how a family had demanded that he give them 39 million lira (US$1,300) in surgery costs for their child, in return for their votes.
He denies that he paid anyone, “except once, for “humanitarian reasons.”
In such an acute economic crises, vote buying can only be curbed by lifting secrecy on the bank accounts of all candidates. Lebanon’s electoral bribery shenanigans are an old habit, long preceding the country’s financial collapse, and only systemic, enforced, transparency laws can expect to upend the practice.
How does vote-buying happen?
In the run up to elections, candidates communicate with what they call ‘electoral keys,’ individuals known to have a wide social network that can be mobilized to benefit the candidate. In Zahle, for example, the competition between the electoral lists was over Sunni voters who constitute a weighty demographic in this district.
The candidates compete among themselves to secure the best ‘electoral keys,’ offering these individuals large sums of cash in the tens of thousands of dollars. The ‘keys’ will act as their intermediary-cum-cashier with voters after all, sometimes offering between $100 and $150 per vote.
It was rumored among voters that Michel Daher, a candidate for the Catholic seat in parliament – in accordance with Lebanon’s confessional system – was paying $150 per Sunni vote, while another candidate, who headed a rival list, was paying $100.
According to some reports, Daher sought to obtain enough votes to qualify his electoral list to win two seats for both himself and the Sunni candidate on his list, Omar Halablab. He is believed to have paid a large sum of money to “buy” 25,000 Sunni voters, at the rate of $150 per vote. In the final count, only six thousand Sunnis voted for his list.
Already a highly controversial figure, Daher was accused of violating Lebanese laws by engaging in commercial activity with Israelis, according to Lebanese media. Facing lawsuits before the Lebanese judiciary, Daher stands accused of polluting the vital Litani River with waste materials and chemicals dumped by some of his factories.
One of these – Master Chips – is reportedly being charged with contributing to an increase in cancer cases among populations living near the Litani riverbeds
Daher’s colleague, Halablab, who lost the election, has his own questionable record, standing accused of squandering public money during his stint as director general of the Ministry of Culture.
There were also rumors that the candidate for the Sunni seat in the same constituency, Muhammad Shafiq Hammoud, had paid $100 per Sunni vote. Elsewhere, in the more affluent Matn region east of Beirut, securing a vote came with a hefty $500 price tag.
First-time candidate Omar Harfouche, a wealthy celebrity businessman from France, reportedly paid up to $50 per vote in Tripoli, one of the poorest regions in Lebanon, which explains the lower price tag. This information came to light when voters turned up to a scheduled election event, became angry that they hadn’t been paid, and took the venue chairs as compensation.
During a 27 April pre-election TV interview that went viral, the disarmingly candid Harfouche, asked how he was spending his campaign funds, responded: “This is election money that I am spending on Lebanese networks. I paid you so I can be on your station.”
Harfouche then accuses powerful pro-Saudi candidates like “Ashraf Rifi and the Lebanese Forces” of spending far more money, and from foreign sources. “Their money is illegal, while mine is my own.”
“The source of the money is the main issue here. You are accusing me because I am a transparent person. But you don’t dare question the Lebanese Forces about where they get their money from. I know from where they get their money…From Israel…Israel has been funneling money for several months…I got my information from Riyadh,” Harfouche persists, while the interview interrupts him in horror, warning that he can be sued for making such claims.
Two can play that game
A top journalist with one of Lebanon’s largest TV outlets confirms some of Harfouche’s claims to The Cradle. Campaigns can pay as much as $100,000 to appear for one hour on prime-time (evenings) television, and as much as $35,000 for morning interviews. For an appearance on a news bulletin report that does not exceed two and a half minutes, the cost is about $20,000.
So the vote buying scheme was not only in the form of cash to constituents. Many candidates steer hefty sums to media outlets to help polish their images on air and have an advantage over their less-funded opponents.
To be sure, not all voters vote according to the cash received. Under the slogan ‘Take his money and vote against him,’ Lebanese voters are encouraged to take money from candidates and instead vote for their opponents.
Once convicted for dealing with Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, Ziad al-Homsi, reportedly received potential voters at his home in the town of Saadnayel in the Bekaa, and paid $60 for each of them to vote for the Sunni candidate – Bilal al-Hushaimi – on the Lebanese Forces (LF) list, despite knowing that many of these voters had also received payment by other candidates.
Purchasing votes by proxy
This is the calibre of candidates hoping to represent the Lebanese people in parliament, some of whom managed to get seats as a result of their financial overtures.
Compared to other countries, a very high percentage of the Lebanese live outside their hometowns. Electoral law requires the voter to vote in his birth place, not necessarily where he resides. In every Lebanese election, it is common for candidates to cover voters’ transportation costs to their hometowns, by providing them with means of transport or providing vehicle owners with the price of fuel to reach the polling stations.
No one is exempt from this, even those parties who are not known to buy votes. For instance, Hezbollah transported large groups of Lebanese voters residing in Syria to polling stations inside Lebanon, in addition to providing internal transportation between various regions.
Hezbollah and its allies may have lost their parliamentary majority in the latest election, but the newly elected members of parliament, whether independent or affiliated with NGOs and civil society organizations, also failed to secure that ‘golden’ majority.
Under Lebanese law, the absence of a parliamentary majority for any party requires the cooperation of all parties to form a new government. The alternative is a severe confrontation that an already weak Lebanon cannot possibly handle.
Elections in this country are akin to democratic folklore. Lebanon has never been governed according to the results of parliamentary elections, anyway. The state is run in backroom deals according to political balances based on sectarian quotas – where each sect has links with foreign countries that are also in conflict with one another.
The crisis of Lebanon is complex. As long as foreign countries compete for political influence in Lebanon, sectarian divisions in Lebanon will collide over domestic policies. In that schism, the doors will always be open to the self-serving interests of external intervention. And cash, bribes and corruption are the fastest ways to get the job done.