While a law to lower the voting age to 18 has grabbed headlines in Lebanon, another electoral law amendment is also being considered. The proposal would allow expatriates, or Lebanese living abroad, the right to vote. Although there are no exact figures available, it is estimated that anywhere between 4 million and 15 million people of Lebanese origin live outside the country. Absentee voting is a privilege citizens of many countries enjoy. The US, Germany, India, Israel and the UK have all implemented some form of absentee voting, even if only for military personnel. The issue in Lebanon, however, is bound up in demographic, logistical, and, of course, sectarian considerations, as many of the Lebanese living abroad are thought to be Christian. NOW talks to a sampling of Lebanese from around the world about their thoughts on the proposed legislation, and whether or not they would participate in elections.
Mohamad Mogharbel, 47, an engineer in Abu Dhabi, said that “anybody who wants to go vote, if he carries a Lebanese passport, has the right to express his opinion, and I think they should be heard.” While he came back to Lebanon to vote during the June elections last year, he says he realizes most expats can’t afford to do that.
“I grew up in the States, and I believe in things being done right and things being fair…To make it easy, they should allow expatriates to vote in the local embassy,” Mogharbel told NOW. He added, however, that he’s not very optimistic that it would be possible to establish expat voting in Lebanon, as “I don’t have a lot of faith in the politics of Lebanon... Nobody has a clear vision and if you do, you’ll be overpowered by somebody who has more guns or more power… In Lebanon nothing is done fairly.”
Guy Younes, 50, an energy efficiency consultant in Ireland, agrees that allowing expats to vote would be good for Lebanon, where the state of politics is “stagnant and not healthy.”
But “we [expatriates] don’t have an interest in [Lebanese] politicians, because they do whatever they want. I believe that allowing expats to vote would bring a dramatic change, and it is fair.”
Unlike Mogharbel, however, he “would never travel for elections. I’m very interested in politics, but none of [the parties] have put a good candidate forward...It’s all done in a way I disapprove of.”
Ray Matta, 45, a civil servant in Brisbane, Australia, also feels that allowing expats to vote would be a “very good way of keeping the expat Lebanese community connected, which can only be a good thing for the country.”
His concern, however, “is that the Lebanese electoral system overall needs reform. The existing system begs corruption… It’s not genuinely representative, and politicians rarely have an interest in doing what’s best for the whole community. In Australia, you can rank politicians. If that were the case in Lebanon, politicians would work on populist views. They’d have to espouse policies that actually have something in them,” he said. “Let’s face it, Lebanon is probably only alive because of its expatriates. If you consider the wealth of those living outside the country, it accounts for a lot of money.”
Dr. Ned Fawaz, of Michigan, America, is the president of the Lebanese International Business Council. He agrees on the importance of Lebanon’s expatriate community, but went further by embracing the idea of expat representation in Lebanon’s parliament “because of the size of the Lebanese expatriate community, and because of their economic contributions to Lebanon,” he told NOW. “We’re behind most nations in this issue… We should have at least 30 parliament members from Europe, Africa, North America, Australia, etc... Not having that, we have no voice.”
However, “they should only allow people who maintain their citizenship to vote. Compared to the total number, they are a small portion. Of the 15 million [expats], we are maybe one million. If they allow people to vote only in an embassy or a consulate, even that number would be reduced in half, but if you open up the vote on the internet, then it may have a significant change.”
Rebecca Abou-Chedid, 31, is a law student who also works at the Arab American Institute in Washington DC. She supports allowing expats to vote because “civic participation is the keystone to any democratic society. The more Lebanese who take part in the democratic process, the more they will be invested in the country's future.”
Unlike the other expats NOW spoke to, Abou-Chedid says she would not exercise the right to vote. “I personally would not participate in Lebanese elections. Like many second-generation Lebanese Americans, I choose to focus on fostering a positive US-Lebanon relationship rather than participating directly in Lebanese politics.”
However, she said she is confident that the June elections were “free and fair.”
“The transparency of the legislative elections was a credit to the Lebanese people and the seriousness with which they take the democratic process,” Abou-Chedid said.
But the country has a long way to go, she admits. “Some Lebanese living abroad no longer view politics through a confessional lens, so their participation could be a catalyst to debate issues affecting Lebanon based on what's best for the country as a whole.”
Guilherme Mattar, a 46-year-old lawyer in Brazil, cautions that while expat voting could bring positive things to Lebanon and help foster democratic reforms, expats have a duty to “get acquainted with the national issues involving their responsibility to vote.”
“The implementation [of expatriate voting] would require procedures to ensure transparency and legitimacy of votes. For me, as a descendant who cares about Lebanon, its people and their fate, such a project is only relevant if it comes to the benefit of Lebanon's integrity, independence, freedom and prosperity.”