x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Candidates are not the only choice

White has joined sky blue and sunny yellow as a colour on the Lebanese political spectrum.

Maya Zankoul, a graphic designer, has created an imaginary election candidate named
Maya Zankoul, a graphic designer, has created an imaginary election candidate named "Jaafar" who features prominently on her blog.

Beirut // White has joined sky blue and sunny yellow as a colour on the Lebanese political spectrum. Submitting a blank ballot is growing in popularity among the youth and others dissatisfied with their options in Lebanon's parliamentary elections on Sunday. "The white ballot is a clear statement of our discontent and frustration with the upcoming elections," said Mohammed Ayoub, 27, who within two days of setting up a Facebook group devoted to the white ballot has grown to more than 250 members from across Lebanon.

Mr Ayoub's campaign slogan is "Al sama Zarqa, al Shams Safra, wa al warqa bayda" (the sky is blue, the sun is yellow, and the ballot is white). It is a spin-off of the popular slogans of the two major political forces in Lebanon: the blue sky used by the Future Movement and the yellow sun of Hizbollah. By urging Lebanese to vote white, Mr Ayoub is saying a blank ballot is better than no ballot at all.

"These elections are just about power play and politicians wanting to show who is stronger," said Mr Ayoub, who besides running a distribution business is a vocal activist against sectarianism and divisions. "I don't want to boost any more egos by putting any of these people's names on the ballot." However, Mr Ayoub is adamant about the voters that are planning to skip the elections. "Not voting at all will not help bring about change.

"That blank piece of paper speaks volumes and it is everyone's right to cast it," he said, echoing sentiments expressed by members of different sectarian backgrounds who have joined his group. Mr Ayoub is not the only one paying attention to the white ballot. For the first time in Lebanese parliamentary elections, the blank ballot will be taken seriously after being ignored in previous elections. Both the government and different national and international observers will be paying close attention to it.

"Besides the usual qualitative and violation-related information that we will be monitoring on the day of the election, we will be gathering data that may shed light on things that need reforms," said Carmen Geha, a representative from the Lebanese Association for Democratic Election (Lade). Along with Lade, the interior ministry will also be counting the blank ballots as part of its new strategies.

"If there is a large percentage of blank ballots cast in the upcoming elections, then it may serve as an important indication of the political views here," Ms Geha said. Lade will pay attention to other types of ballots as well, including the "glossy ballot", in which a list of candidates on a ballot cannot be changed because of a protective layer on the ballot. In this way, a party can try to guarantee that candidates of just one camp are elected without exception.

"The kind of ballot that ends up being cast or rejected is very important for us to document and build on for future elections," she said. Local campaigns are actively targeting voters that are thinking of either voting blank or abstaining, with such slogans as "no ballot should go to waste". "If you don't believe in any of the candidates, then why not cast a vote for a cause instead of a character?" asked Farah Salka, one of the organisers of an international campaign called "350" that is beginning to gain momentum locally.

"You can put that blank vote into good use and vote for a better future and environment," Ms Salka said. The number 350 refers to the 350 parts per million identified as the safe upper limit for CO2 in the atmosphere. With eight different coloured ballot boxes, teams of independent activists from IndyACT, a non-governmental organisation, will be stationed in more than 20 polling stations across Lebanon in hopes of reeling in the undecided voters to nominate candidate "350".

"We sent off official letters to all the candidates in regards to climate change and none of them responded," Ms Salka said. "So we thought, let's create our own candidate." But some of the voters are getting creative with their blank ballots, by "drawing in" their political views on it. "Mr Jaafar is getting my vote," laughed Maya Zankoul, 22, who turned her frustrations with the everyday life in Lebanon into a locally popular animated blog, Maya's Amalgam, featuring caricatures of herself, and of characters that cross her path, like the typical "bald, ageing and show-off" Lebanese politician she named Jaafar.

"He is this arrogant typical politician that everyone follows and nobody knows why and whose pictures are everywhere," said Ms Zankoul, who will be casting her animated ballot in the southern village of Hasbaya. Ms Zankoul was forced to dress Mr Jaafar in grey as "all the other colours were taken up by political parties". "I didn't want people to say, oh she means this or that particular politician," she said. "To me, they are all the same."

In a recent satire of the elections on her blog, Ms Zankoul drew Mr Jaafar with a massive face, next to tiny words. "I only see big people with very little words in this elections," she said. "Unless I see something different, none of them are getting my vote." rghazal@thenational.ae