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Voting overseas

Lebanon’s diaspora is going to the polls this weekend and, despite a record number of registered voters, Lebanese abroad are split over who to vote for, all the while continuing to face impediments that could prevent them from voting.

A Lebanese official gestures at an operation room to observe the voting process through screens at the foreign ministry in Beirut on May 6, 2022. Lebanese expatriates began casting their votes today for parliamentary elections, state media said, two years into an unprecedented economic crisis that spurred a mass exodus. It is the second time in the country's history that citizens residing abroad are able to vote for their 128 representatives, in elections set to be held at home on May 15.Expatriates began voting at 7:00 am (0500 GMT) Beirut time on Friday in nine Arab countries and in Iran, while the rest will vote in 48 other countries on Sunday. Photo: Anwar Amro, AFP.

Zeina Haidamous was eager to vote in Lebanon’s upcoming parliamentary election.

It would not have been her first time voting abroad. She cast her ballot in 2018 in Abu Dhabi.

However, now the 38-year-old lives in Gibraltar, and to vote, she would have to travel hundreds of kilometers to an allocated center in Spain or the UK.

On May 6, voters in Arab countries, such as the Gulf, Iraq and Iran, head to the polls. The rest of the diaspora, in 48 countries, vote on the 8th. According to the electoral law, Lebanese expats should have voted in 2022 for six MP seats allocated for the diaspora, but the Parliament amended the law after several diaspora organizations pressured legislators. Therefore, no matter where they are in the world, the Lebanese receive the ballot with the lists running in their ancestral district. 

If there were any candidates running in the election that Haidamous wholeheartedly believed in, then, according to her, she would have made the long journey to Madrid or London. But there is no one like that this time around.

“​​It’s like, I want to vote, but is it really going to make a difference?” she told NOW.

“Are the new people coming really going to work for a better future? We’ve heard the same things over and over and over again. The same promises. So, now, I’m thinking, going there [to the UK or Spain], taking time off from work, to vote, is it worth it? Is anything going to change? Do we still have to wait and see? [We’re] walking on eggshells.”

Haidamous is not alone in her thinking.

For the 225,114 Lebanese who registered to vote, more than double the nearly 83,000 who registered in the 2018 election, they have to weigh whether or not potentially paying extra to travel to the voting center is worth the journey.

“It’s tough, especially that it doesn’t mean that if you live abroad, you have money and do whatever you want,” Stephani Moukhayber, a 28-year-old member of the United Diaspora activist group, told NOW. “This is a very big misconception people in Lebanon have of people who live abroad.”

On top of this, activists and others working with opposition groups have had to work hard in order to convince Lebanese abroad that they should not only vote, but vote for the “change” candidates which they have had varying success with, partly due to skepticism that anything would actually change.

Motivating the electorate

When Tonia Moura, 27, heard that 225,000 Lebanese registered to vote abroad, the UAE-based representative for Shamaluna, the name of a list of “change” candidates running in the north of Lebanon, she was over the moon.

The record numbers of registered voters presented a real opportunity for the opposition to rally the diaspora vote in their favor, giving them a real chance at winning several seats in Parliament.

However, the challenge was communicating with these voters and convincing them that they really mean change and that they are not just spouting campaign promises that will never be fulfilled; this is something that Lebanese voters are all too familiar with over the last three decades.

“We are facing an issue mainly with the older generation of the diaspora. Everyone is sharing the same feeling of they are not willing or they are not excited or they are not aware enough to vote,” Moura told NOW. 

“However, the new generation, when you call them and you engage with them, when you get on Zoom, when you introduce the candidates, the programs to them, they are being very engaging and they are shifting very quickly from being undecided to being supporters of change and willing to give new people a chance and believing that our vote matters.”

Moukhayber was also quick to point out that the Lebanese who left during the civil war were showing less optimism toward voting, while those who have left Lebanon within the last 10 to 20 years have expressed willingness to put their faith in the relatively unknown groups.

“​​I wouldn’t expect much from them. Either they didn’t register to vote or they’re not going to vote for alternative parties,” Moukhayber stated, arguing that the older generation is more stuck in their traditional ways of looking at Lebanese politics or has become so disillusioned that they do not think anyone can bring about change.

“In Lebanon, we have a problem,” Raymond Hajj, 30, who is also a member of United Diaspora living in France, told NOW. “We follow the person blindly and when we do that, we don’t know how to make them pay or take accountability for their actions. There is no accountability in Lebanon.”

While the newer generation abroad might be more open to voting for opposition candidates, that does not mean that the opposition is guaranteed all of these votes.

[The diaspora is] a mirroring of the situation in Lebanon. When the Lebanese at home are feeling reluctant to vote, the same feeling is shared in the diaspora.

Some youth abroad might have supported one of the establishment parties prior to leaving, or have grown up in a family that heavily supports a specific party.

Hajj is planning on voting for the opposition, but his cousins remain supporters of the establishment to the point, according to Hajj, that it is impossible for him to have a conversation with them about politics because their support runs so deep.

“They are still stuck in [this mindset],” he stated. “For example, Michel Aoun, yeah, he’s a good guy, Samir Geagea is a good guy, Saad Hariri also. They always see them as good people who want to do change for this country but the other “opposition” did not allow them.”

Because there is a wide variety of Lebanese abroad, Moura is not expecting the opposition to get all 225,000 votes or even half of them.

“[The diaspora is] a mirroring of the situation in Lebanon,” she explained. “When the Lebanese at home are feeling reluctant to vote, the same feeling is shared in the diaspora.”

By Moura’s estimates, maybe around half of the registered voters will actually turn out for the election this weekend. If half of those who actually show up to vote cast their ballots for the opposition, it will give them a fighting chance to win several seats throughout the country.

However, while the largest number of Lebanese abroad have registered to take part in the election this year, they still face several obstacles, namely whether or not they will even be able to vote in the end.

The voting Olympics

In most countries, when it comes to casting their ballot, voters just need to go to the closest voting center where they are registered.

Even abroad, voters can potentially send their ballots by mail or vote at their nearest diplomatic mission.

That is not the case when it comes to Lebanon.

Lebanese abroad can only vote at specific voting centers in the country where they are registered.

For those living in the capitals or in major cities, this could mean just simply mean taking a bus or train across the city and voting.

But this is not always the case.

Moukhayber, who lives in Canada, said that there are only two voting centers in the country, in Ottawa and Montreal. Anyone living in other cities, such as Vancouver, would have to pay hundreds of dollars to get a flight to one of the locations just to vote, something that she believes not many people would be willing to do.

I know a lot of people who are against the whole oligarchy and they want to vote. Some people have lost hope and [believe] that nothing is going to change and you have so many options that you’re at a loss. You don’t know who you are going to vote for.

Even in Turkey, a go-to for many Lebanese looking to escape Lebanon due to the more relaxed visa policies for Lebanese, the only voting location is in Istanbul.

For Lebanese residing in areas of Turkey outside of Istanbul, such as Ankara or Gaziantep, this could mean that they will not be able to vote because it will be too long and too expensive of a journey.

Elian, 36, who asked to remain anonymous, lives in Gibraltar like Haidamous and was planning on voting in the election, but, after discovering that he would have to travel to Spain or the UK to vote, decided against it.

“I wanted to vote,” Elian told NOW. “But, in Gibraltar, we cannot vote for anyone because we don’t have the option to vote abroad and I’m not going to travel to Lebanon just to vote.”

This issue is not lost on activists like Moukayber and Hajj who say that they do not fault the Lebanese who cannot afford to spend the money just to vote. But, for the individuals and groups that helped push the voter registration effort, it can be frustrating now that people are telling them that they cannot vote since their center is too far away.

“In October and November we helped these people to register and today they came back to us to tell us that, for example, a person who is living in Paris, France, they’re going to send him or her to Montpellier, in the south of France, which is four hours away. We have a lot of cases like that and worse,” Hajj said.

This is not the only issue that Lebanese expatriates are facing.

If a voter is able to arrive at the voting center, they need to present their Lebanese passports or ID cards as identification in order to vote, despite being able to use any other form of Lebanese identification to register.

“People were able to register with ikhraj qayd (civil register extract), even if it was an old one, or any identification card,” Moura stated. “However, for at least the voting process, they need to at least have a Lebanese passport so that they can use them for one day. And most of the diaspora, like the second generation or third generation, that are living in Australia or North America, don’t have these documents.”

The possibility that some Lebanese who spent most of their lives abroad may not be able to vote since they might not have either of the required documents is yet another blow for those that have worked to rally support from the diaspora in favor of the opposition lists.

A mixed reception

Samir Sarkis, 33, moved to Qatar in September 2021 because of the economic crisis.

A politically vocal individual, Sarkis says that he is going to vote for an opposition list for his home district of Koura in north Lebanon.

Even if he and many of his Lebanese acquaintances in Qatar are planning on voting for the opposition, he says that there are still plenty of people who are undecided.

“I know a lot of people who are against the whole oligarchy and they want to vote,” Sarkis told NOW. “Some people have lost hope and [believe] that nothing is going to change and you have so many options that you’re at a loss. You don’t know who you are going to vote for.”

The lack of unified opposition lists is a common complaint amongst many Lebanese. 

While initially one large group in the early days of the October 17 uprising in 2019 and, later, after the August 4 Beirut Port explosion in 2020, albeit to a slightly lesser degree, the opposition groups have since fractured apart, unable to come to a consensus on most issues and ultimately forming multiple lists for almost all voting districts in Lebanon, potentially risking a split vote and fewer opposition candidates getting elected than if they were running on unified lists.

So many people were encouraged at the beginning [of the uprising]. ‘We want change. We want it now. Let’s do this.’ And it’s like they just want it now, but if you really want to do a big change, then you need to have a bigger vision. You have to think further ahead. It’s kind of disappointing because they’re not doing that. They can’t work together.

This disunity has worked as a deterrent for some would-be voters like Haidamous, who were ardent supporters of the 2019 protests and who even took part in the October 17 uprising.

“So many people were encouraged at the beginning [of the uprising]. ‘We want change. We want it now. Let’s do this.’ And it’s like they just want it now, but if you really want to do a big change, then you need to have a bigger vision. You have to think further ahead. It’s kind of disappointing because they’re not doing that. They can’t work together.” She said. 

There is also pressure coming from supporters of the establishment parties abroad.

Sarkis says he knows of one man in Qatar who is affiliated with an establishment party that has been pressuring people from his confessional community to vote for that party. 

However, despite pressures from the establishment, the younger generation of Lebanese abroad say that there need to be new faces in Parliament that are not associated with the old political elite.

“If I am going to vote, then I need new blood,” Elian stated. “Someone new. None of the old parties and people that used to be in politics. We need new people.”

Many also don’t expect new policies and accountability to happen overnight. 

“We are supporting some lists that are willing to change and we know they are going to lose but we are hoping for 2026,” Hajj said. 

“Now we are not asking for 2022. We are hoping for the future. If in 2022 we got 5,000 votes in a certain district, in 2026 we will get 10,000 votes.”

Haidamous and Elian want to see evidence that the opposition candidates are genuine and not just capitalizing on the anti-establishment sentiment.

If they show that they are actually working towards taking Lebanon away from the status quo, Haidamous says that she would travel to vote for them in 2026 without hesitation.

Elian, though, is less hopeful, expressing concern that even if opposition candidates were to get elected, they would eventually become corrupted like the rest of the system.

“If I was able to, I would just plant cedar trees because this is the only thing that won’t be corrupted in Lebanon,” he stated, a tinge of despair in his voice. “Otherwise, everything will be abused and corrupted because of how it is [in Lebanon]; even the mentality of the people. This is how we are, unfortunately.”

Nicholas Frakes is a multimedia journalist with @NOW_leb. He tweets @nicfrakesjourno.

Rayanne Tawil contributed translating to this report.