Lebanese parliamentary elections: who’s monitoring?

As Lebanon’s June parliamentary elections move closer, the international community has increased closely monitoring the elections process in an effort to assure that it is indeed fair and democratic. But how is local press reading the international and local monitoring efforts? MENASSAT’s Saseen Kawzally offers this commentary.
The Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections (LADE), founded in 1996 is the oldest elections monitoring organization in Lebanon. ©LADE

BEIRUT, May 14, 2009 (MENASSAT) – So everyone wants to monitor the June 6 parliamentary elections in Lebanon. The Arab League, the US, and the EU all say they have a stake in assuring a fair elections process, and as election day approaches, the Lebanese press is also on deck to make sure the monitors are being monitored – local and international.

Lebanon’s daily Assafir, for example, called this arriving platoon of election monitors, “The international community’s attempt” at advancing “the progression of the political process” in Lebanon.  

The Americans announced their monitoring mission earlier this year, but their European brethren arrived to Lebanon first.

Both monitoring missions are now in Lebanon to observe the preparatory stages of the election - all done in cooperation with Lebanon’s Interior Ministry.

The Arab League’s Secretary General Amr Moussa also announced the League’s participation in the international monitoring efforts. But that has yet to happen.  

For the American’s, the National Democracy Institute (NDI) preparatory mission is spearheading the U.S.’ monitoring efforts.

Problems of credibility

But former secretary of state Madeleine Albright heads the NDI - not necessarily the most welcomed visitor to Lebanon due to her role in orchestrating what became a 12-year embargo of Iraq after the first Gulf War.

(In 1996, Albright actually admitted to US journalist Lesley Stahl on the TV news program 60-Minutes that the death of some 500,000 Iraqi children under US sanctions was worth the price.)

As for the notably larger and more sophisticated European monitoring mission, the chief monitor is Jose Ignacio Salafranca Sanchez-Neyra, a Spanish MP and member of the foreign affairs committee in the European Parliament.

He performed the same job in 2005. In a statement he made upon his arrival in Beirut early this month, Salafranca said this election was being held “in a delicate atmosphere, we hope the presence of European monitors will contribute to a positive atmosphere in Lebanon and the region.”

In the case of Lebanon, public opinion about international monitoring will draw inevitable comparisons with the 2006 legislative elections in Palestinian Territories.

Hamas came out the winners in 2006 in an election that was independently monitored by ex-US President Jimmy Carter’s human rights center, The Carter Center, and the NDI.

“The delegation found the elections to be peaceful, competitive, and genuinely democratic” and still the integrity of the elections did not translate into international recognition of Hamas’ legitimacy as the newly elected government.

Wassif Awada writes in Assafir (April 23), “Everyone knows that international monitors’ presence aims to insure the integrity and transparency of the elections, in plain words, preventing fraud. This, in itself, despite all justifications, is an insult to the state and all its civilian and military institutions, more so, when at the top of the team organizing the elections, stands a minister like lawyer Ziad Baroud.”

Minister Ziad Baroud is head of the newly formed Elections Oversight Council (OSC) that has been charged with organizing all public elections in Lebanon. His performance rating in public office is second only to Lebanese President Michel Suleiman according to recent public opinion polls.

Here Awada is not expressing some over-ripe sense of nationalism or some xenophobic tendency, rather he refers to a Lebanese perception that elements of the government have colluded with international legal mechanisms to override domestic legal processes.

This is primarily a reference to the UN Tribunal to try the assassins of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, killed with 21 others in a car bomb in 2005.

The UN Tribunal has assumed international jurisdiction over Lebanese law here, which critics say indicates an international lack of trust in Lebanese constitutional establishments, including the judiciary.

But Awada acknowledges, “Actual fraud does not happen during the voting anymore, rather at different times before the actual election.”

He continues, “This happens through electoral laws tailored according to strict sectarian dimensions, for people who vote according to their sectarian and confessional tendencies.”

The column writer concludes that international monitoring won’t do any good.

“It would be more useful if the government assigns the remaining members of the Constitutional Council, which looks into electoral objections, otherwise the next parliament’s legitimacy will be as much in doubt as this one’s.”

Awada is not the only one who thinks international monitoring is useless. George Alam goes even further, disregarding it as unnecessary in an April (17) article in Assafir.

Alam explains, “What Arab diplomatic sources have learned is that majority of those eager to monitor the honesty of this process have not provided the best examples in their own elections processes.”

The west in general, and the United States in particular, has lost that supposed “favorable attribute” heralded during the cold war. Add to this list the July 2006 war, which put to rest for the majority of Lebanese any illusions of commitment to human rights by the United States and the Europeans.

Local monitoring, politics and funding

As for local monitoring, the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections (LADE), founded in 1996 is the oldest elections monitoring organization in Lebanon.

While LADE is doing notable work in complying with human rights, the revered organization’s reputation for objectivity has been questioned by the Lebanese press recently.

Only 50 members out of around 450 showed up to elect the administrative committee this year, writer and political activist Bassam Quntar wrote (March 25) in the left-leaning daily, Al-Akhbar.

Al-Akhbar ran another report by Maha Zaraqit (April 3), in which critics of LADE accused the organization of being in favor of the ruling pro-western March 14th coalition, over-stating so-called “grave” violations in the lead up to the elections by the Hezbollah-led opposition movement.

Journalist Rajana Hamiyeh noted discontent among Lebanese journalists after LADE’s last report on the elections process failed to register a fresh violation by the running Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Seniora.
LADE had promised to issue weekly reports including all registered violations, but it has issued only 2 reports counting in total 15 violations in the run-up to the June elections.

Journalist Ghassan Saoud quotes noted political researcher Kamal Fghali: “The Association had not registered any violations by the government backed candidates, which are obvious and numerous. It tried to look objective; instead, we saw it was biased.”

The Association’s second report was also poorly received after LADE promised journalists an election monitoring report so hefty, that its presentation had to be postponed. In the end, the report included no more than 6 violations - all of them breeches of article 71 of the elections law, which regulates elections advertisements.

They announced the names of violators, mostly from parties associated with the former Hezbollah-led government opposition, while only fleetingly mentioning violations from the current pro-western political majority – prompting accusations of political bias.

LADE has responded to the accusations by saying it will handover violation documents to Lebanon’s interior ministry to take due legal action – although LADE says its reports have no enforcement capabilities.

With claims of political bias on the table in a system with such rooted sectarianism where candidates run for seats in the parliament representing their confessions in an electoral system designed in 1960, what exactly are international or local elections monitors monitoring?

What Lebanon's journalists seem to be indicating is that international elections monitoring will likely be used either in favor of or in opposition to June's election results. Whoever wins, will praise the elections monitoring process, but whoever loses will likely decry them as being flawed.