Lebanon's 2022 elections: What to expect from the diaspora vote

What to expect from Lebanon's diaspora vote in 2022 election
7 min read
26 January, 2022
In-depth: Lebanon's expat community has registered to vote in the upcoming May elections in record numbers, but it remains to be seen whether the diaspora vote will succeed in shaking the political establishment.

Welcome to The New Arab’s coverage of Lebanon’s General Election 2022 held on May 15, 2022. Follow live updates, results, analyses, and opinion in our special hub here.

Lebanon has experienced several waves of emigration over the course of its modern history. Although it is hard to track the exact numbers of Lebanese living abroad, it is a common opinion that there are more Lebanese around the world than in Lebanon itself.  

It is estimated that around 10-15 million Lebanese live abroad, while only 6 million live in Lebanon. 

The Lebanese diaspora has significantly contributed to Lebanon's economy over the past decades, as the economic remittances from expats have provided a layer of social protection for many citizens within Lebanon.

But the economic and financial crisis that erupted in late 2019 triggered a new wave of emigration. The devaluation of the local currency, political instability, multilevel economic and humanitarian crises, the lack of the rule of law, and the explosion at Beirut port in 2020 forced thousands of Lebanese to flee the country

"To understand this radical increase in expat registrations to vote, it is essential to understand that the socioeconomic situation in Lebanon has completely changed since the 2018 elections"

However, for the first time since the crisis started, the Lebanese have been called to vote for the next general elections currently scheduled in May 2022.

Many have put great expectations and hope on the diaspora vote, wishful that the impact of the out-of-country voting (OCV) could break the current status quo of the Lebanese political establishment, who are held accountable for the current disastrous situation of the country.

The current electoral law, reformed in 2017, allowed expats to vote for all 128 seats in the 2018 general elections. Contrary to the law's provision that limits the expat vote to six seats for the next elections, an amendment renewed the voting for 128 in the 2022 elections. Only the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), founded by the current Lebanese president Michael Aoun, appealed the amendment, but was overruled.

When the registration window for Lebanese expats closed in November 2021, more than 244,000 citizens abroad had registered to vote in 2022, a three-fold increase on the 82,000 that registered to vote for the 2018 general elections.

What to expect from Lebanon's diaspora vote in 2022 election
A billboard in Beirut that reads 'The people have decided, the change has started' is put up on 7 October 2021 in response to debates within the political establishment over the date of the elections, which have been set for May 2022. [Getty]

To understand this radical increase in expat registrations to vote, it is essential to understand that the socioeconomic situation in Lebanon has completely changed since the 2018 elections.

Christophe Abi-Nassif, the Lebanon program director at the Middle East Institute, told The New Arab that the 2022 general election would be the first after Lebanon's economic crisis.

"The crisis fuelled the expat vote registration for the 2022 elections as Lebanese have become angrier and more disillusioned with the political establishment," he said.

Dayana El Baba, a senior projects coordinator at the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections (LADE), told The New Arab that expats believe that the general election has a relevant weight for changing the current situation in the country. "Expats want to see a change in Lebanon," she said.

In-depth
Live Story

However, a higher number of registrations doesn't mean that all expats will effectively go to vote. In the 2018 elections,  just over half of the registered expat voters actually cast a ballot. The impact of the diaspora vote in the upcoming Lebanese elections hangs on several elements.

The general perception is that expats will likely vote for new independent candidates who want to wipe away the current political establishment. However, Abi-Nassif noted that it is hard to assess the diaspora composition and voting intentions. It may be similar to domestic voters, or significantly different.

Although younger expat voters will likely choose independent candidates and alternative parties, long-standing expats may still prefer traditional parties as they may not have their finger on the pulse of the dire conditions of the Lebanese population.

The impact of the diaspora vote on individual electoral districts might not be as decisive as expected. "Expat votes go to a specific district, depending on the family's historic residence of record. But although the expat vote will be definitely important, its shares in the districts will be unlikely more than the single-digit percentage," Abi-Nassif said.

"Clientelism, corruption, nepotism, and pork-barrel voting are common in Lebanon. But during the election campaigns, these political tools reach their highest expression"

El Baba told The New Arab that the diaspora vote might also experience some issues in terms of logistics. Expat voters have to plan their time off to go to the embassies to vote, and a dispute over the election date and the number of contested seats has created confusion among expats.

But far more severe issues may affect expat voting patterns and the democratic process in the 2022 elections.

During the expat registration campaign, several political parties acquired data on expat voters and pre-emptively contacted them to ask about their voting intention or offer to help them register. Such personal data breaches represent another tool in the hands of political parties to affect the diaspora vote.

Clientelism, corruption, nepotism, and pork-barrel voting are common in Lebanon. But during the election campaigns, these political tools reach their highest expression.

Due to the economic meltdown, buying votes will likely become easier for traditional parties. "People have become increasingly angrier but also increasingly desperate," Abi-Nassif said.

Analysis
Live Story

However, El Baba thinks that such dynamics are less effective for Lebanese expats. "Political parties are not sure about the expat voting's results. Expats are more free than domestic voters as political parties can't control them," she said.

Although the circumstances of the 2018 elections are entirely different from the upcoming polls, Abi-Nassif thinks the diaspora vote will be significant but not as crucial as expected.

"The political dynamics of traditional parties towards the diaspora vote are not very different from those towards the domestic voters. There is particular disillusion around Hezbollah. People blame the FPM for its alliance with Hezbollah, established with the Mar Mikhael Agreement signed in 2006, and analysts think Aoun's FPM party will have a poor performance in the upcoming election. These dynamics may be translated into domestic voters' perception and likely into the diaspora vote as well," he said.

According to Abi-Nassif, by allowing expats to vote for all 128 seats, traditional parties think they may win more seats or lose fewer seats than their competitors.

"Whether the diaspora vote will succeed in overturning the current political establishment remains to be seen. But even if it doesn't, it could emphasise the need for change expressed by mass protests in Lebanon since 2019"

Some analysts think that the elections might be cancelled altogether due to Hezbollah's intervention over the fear of losing parliamentary seats as a result of the FPM's expected weak performance.

"It feels like the current political establishment is not as threatened as it was two years ago by alternative parties from civil society because, for now, they are still suffering from some fragmentation," he said.

Although independent candidates and alternative parties have reaped relative success during syndicates' elections, Abi-Nassif thinks that such results don't reflect all Lebanese society's vote intentions. "Even in the syndicates' elections, we have seen big successes but also failures," he said.

Analysts often use syndicate elections to benchmark the upcoming general elections. However, they can be easily misleading because they may represent a bubble of a group of people with common interests, which may differ from the diversified composition of Lebanese society.

But what raises El Baba's concern is not only whether elections will take place but whether the electoral democratic process will respect all international electoral standards.

Analysis
Live Story

"In the last two months, we are raising concern about the clientelist approach of all parties. Lebanon's economic crisis leads to clientelism. We feel that what happened in [the Beirut clashes in] October 2021 might escalate during the electoral campaign and cause security issues. So, the elections might be postponed, which is problematic," she said.

El Baba also stressed that it would be essential to ensure that embassies will open on time and transfer the drop boxes promptly to implement the diaspora vote.

Although many Lebanese rely on the diaspora vote to turn the political class upside down, the current data doesn't help assess the expat voters' impact in the 2022 general elections.

Whether the diaspora vote will succeed in overturning the current political establishment remains to be seen. But even if it doesn’t, it could emphasise the need for change expressed by mass protests in Lebanon since 2019.

Dario Sabaghi is a freelance journalist interested in human rights.

Follow him on Twitter: @DarioSabaghi