x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Buying votes just a part of the price of democracy

Those tasked with ensuring Sunday's elections in Lebanon are fair are fighting against a tradition of dirty tactics.

BEIRUT // Ghassan, a 31-year old from Beirut, remains one of Lebanon's undecided voters with just two days remaining before Sunday's tight parliamentary race. In fact, he is sure he won't be deciding which party to vote for until about an hour before the polling ends. "Most of my friends and I are only voting for the one who pays us the most," he explains without a moment's hesitation. "We will wait until the last two hours, this is when our votes will be purchased as if we were in an auction.

"People are saying at the last hour on voting day, each vote would be worth as much as $1,000 [Dh3,672]. This country will need at least 10 Ziad Baroud's to fight the corruption." Ghassan is referring to the interior minister, Ziad Baroud, who has served as an independent, not as a member of any party contesting elections, who has famously made the integrity of these elections his personal legacy. But he faces an election season subculture that tends to find the easiest way to make money in any given situation, with little regard to the legality of the endeavour.

Vote buying, fake identification cards, disappearing ballot boxes, free flights for members of Lebanon's huge diaspora to return home to vote, payments by some parties to keep some voters from not showing up at all - all of these tactics are fair game in a Lebanese election and are sometimes seen as a process in which ordinary people can profit from a political scene that rarely seems geared towards their needs.

Ilham Abla, 38, has seen more than her share of election shenanigans and worries that despite the strong efforts of Mr Baroud and an international monitoring team led by the former US president Jimmy Carter, little will change this time around. "Ziad Baroud is doing a great job and the Americans showed up this year to monitor the process," she said. "[But there is] no way it will be fully transparent.

"I remember in the past elections some candidates would bribe the employees in the power company to shut down the electricity for 10 to 15 minutes in some districts and in the darkness the boxes of the votes would suddenly double while the electricity was gone. This is just one example. Many dead people are counted as votes and so on. Let's not forget who the Lebanese politicians are: the kings of corruption."

The revelation this week that officials had discovered thousands of falsified identity cards in the semi-lawless Beqaa Valley only adds to the sense that no matter how hard Mr Baroud and Mr Carter work, there will still be illegal activity. "Knowing Lebanon, I know nothing is pure in here," Ahmed Assi, 29, a Shiite from the south who lives in Beirut, said. "The fake ID cards are just one thing. There will be many more, but in the middle of all the Lebanese corruption and cheating, the only person I trust is Ziad Baroud. He is serious, transparent and smart, but he is alone in this transparency battle."

Participants in Lebanon's thriving false identity card trade, a relic of the sectarian civil war, have indicated that getting hold of fake papers remains fairly easy. Although most businessmen involved say that the trade is a shadow of what it was during the war, where many people procured identifications that hid their religion to avoid being killed, they say it remains easy to obtain fake ID. For $100 and about 30 minutes of one's time, an official-looking ID card with a picture under any name can be printed by one of these enterprising criminals, usually located outside Beirut itself. The card can be completely anonymous and unlinked to a real person, or can be designed to cast a vote on behalf of one of the millions of Lebanese who have emigrated in the past two decades and do not plan to return for the elections.

The counterfeiters also offer Syrian, US and British passports, as well as all manner of visa stamps for those looking to travel abroad. But these "special requests" are significantly more expensive than the local ID cards. One report in the local media claimed that as many as 3,700 fully functional ID cards were found in one major political party office on Wednesday, although the story cannot be confirmed by The National.

Vote buying also appears rampant. Representatives of the pro-government Future Movement, a predominately Sunni party, have been encouraging voters in the southern suburbs of Beirut, a traditional stronghold of Hizbollah and its aligned Shiite parties, to vote for their list in exchange for $700. As Ghassan predicted, that is up from $500 just a week ago. "The only problem is they want you on a bus early Sunday morning," said one man who has been approached. "Hizbollah has already said that they don't care if we take [Saad] Hariri's money, just so long as we vote for the Hizbollah list. But none of us can figure out how to do both."