Lebanese Expats: Tilting the Delicate Balance
By: Hiyam Kossayfi
Published Wednesday, April 25, 2012
Lebanese citizens living abroad will now have until the end of the year to register at diplomatic missions in order to vote in the 2013 elections after the Cabinet approved a law facilitating voter registration outside of Lebanon.
The Lebanese state and political class have long treated the country’s vast numbers of citizens abroad as an economic and social force, but rarely as a political one that affects the domestic decision-making process.
During the civil war years, expatriate communities provided various political parties and groups with access to and influence in a number of foreign capitals, often to considerable effect.
But otherwise, emigres have generally been seen as little more than hens that lay golden eggs. They are valued mainly for the money which they bring back or send to their relatives in Lebanon. Non-citizens of Lebanese origin have been viewed in much the same way by officials and politicians, especially the rich – as witnessed in the feting of Mexican tycoon Carlos Slim when he visited the country.
On Wednesday, the Cabinet approved legislation which enables expatriates to exercise their right to vote, as was agreed in 2008. There are a host of technical and administrative difficulties to overcome, some of which were spelled out in a report prepared by the foreign ministry which was presented to ministers prior to the vote. It is based on submissions filed by 85 embassies, consulates, and other diplomatic missions at the end of last year, detailing the logistical requirements needed to organize voting by expatriates in the countries to which they are accredited, as well as the obstacles faced.
In principle, there is a general agreement that it is a natural right and democratic necessity for Lebanese abroad to be able to vote, as the citizens of many other Arab and foreign countries can. But while there may be a rhetorical consensus in favor of this, assessments differ over what the political effect would be in practical terms.
It is no secret that Christian politicians and parties – of all political hues – have been and continue to be strong supporters of expatriate voting. The former Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir championed the idea throughout his term in office and at his meetings with expatriate communities, also calling for descendants of Lebanese emigrants to be allowed to reclaim Lebanese citizenship. His successor Bishara Rai has done likewise.
Politically, the demand for expatriates to be allowed to vote stems from a perception that Lebanese emigres are predominantly Christian. There is a belief among Christians that their votes would restore a desirable balance to the electorate. This may have once been the case, but it is highly questionable whether it remains so. Muslims of all sects have swelled in the ranks of emigrants, especially during and since the civil war.
People familiar with the matter say the focus on enabling expatriates to vote as a way of giving an advantage to Christian political parties is misplaced. For one thing, a large proportion of Christian expatriates are descended from earlier waves of emigration and do not hold Lebanese citizenship. They would not be entitled to vote in any case. Expatriate voting would be unlikely, therefore, to radically tip the demographic balance of the current registered electorate, which is about 38 percent Christian and 62 percent Muslim.
Another difficulty here is that Lebanese consulates abroad have largely abandoned the practice of keeping records of resident Lebanese and their personal statuses or registering the names of Lebanese citizens as a prelude to voting.
A second assumption made by Christian politicians, especially within the March 14 camp, concerns the political leanings of emigres. They believe that most Lebanese who left the country during the Syrian army’s presence, or after its departure are of the “Cedar Revolution” persuasion, and could thus help restore their political fortunes. This might be correct, but it misses another point.
In seeking to mobilize the expatriate Christian vote, the March 14 parties are clearly not aiming to improve the Christians’ share in Muslim areas. In mixed districts, they know that it is the alliances which Christian parties – whether in the March 14 or March 8 camps – forge with their partners which enable their candidates to win.
Consequently, competition for the expatriate Christian vote would largely be between different Christian parties in predominantly Christian districts such as Zgharta, Koura, Metn, Keserwan, Batroun, and Jbeil. None of them believe that the expatriate vote could cause a radical upset in the Bekaa, for example, or tilt the political balance in Tripoli, Akkar, or Baabda.
Expatriates are therefore set to be the object of an internal Christian struggle. This is already evident in the campaigning that Christian parties have been engaged in among emigre communities – bolstered by visits from parliamentary delegations – to rally support ahead of the 2013 elections.
Among the country’s Muslim sects, the expatriate vote is not much of an issue. The Future Movement has votes to spare in the districts where it holds sway, and in any case flies in planeloads of supporters from abroad for elections. The Shia parties have different concerns. These are related more to the pressure that Arab and Western host governments might bring to be bear on their voters, than to the prospect of expatriates aiding the emergence of a third Shia force.
Moreover, the clamor for expatriates to be enabled to vote is something of a diversion. It masks the Christians’ failure to agree on a new election law that could make them less beholden to their allies, who currently choose at least half of their MPs for them.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.