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In the days leading up to the May 6 Lebanese parliamentary election, the capital Beirut got a little quieter as tens of thousands of people drove to towns and villages across the country to cast their votes. Lebanese men and single Lebanese women, regardless of where they live, are required to vote in the place their patrilineal ancestors lived in the 1940s. Upon marriage women are automatically re-registered to their husband’s ancestral district, losing their own. This practice, which has been in place throughout the republic’s seventy-five year history, is causing a widening gap between residency and voter registration, as twin processes of urbanization and migration are depopulating rural areas and swelling urban ones. After decades of transformation, many rural elections can now be decided according to the wishes of non-residents, with cities often unaccountable to the majority of their residents, whose families migrated from elsewhere.

Lebanon’s Confessional System & an Out-of-Date Census

In Lebanon, power is shared along confessional lines. Parliamentary seats are reserved for members of each of Lebanon’s eighteen sects, initially allocated on the basis of the 1932 census and subsequently adjusted by the 1989 Ta’if accord. The government has not conducted a census since 1932. The sects that stand to lose the most in a recount—the Christians, nationwide, and the Sunnis in Beirut, who may now be outnumbered by Shiites—have blocked attempts to conduct a census count. Other factions also have reasons for wanting to avoid a statistical reckoning that could force challenging renegotiations of the fragile status quo.

The lack of a census means the electoral system cannot account for changes in residency among voters. So every voter must return to their patrilineal ancestral village in order to cast a ballot. If the Ministry of Interior’s voter rolls reflected where voters lived, it would be all too easy to determine the true sectarian make-up of each area, and calls to reallocate seats could follow. Until this happens, parliamentary representation continues to diverge from demographic reality.

“It’s very strange,” Ghassan Moukheiber, a former MP from the Free Patriotic Movement and co-founder of the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections, told Muftah. “There is the real country, the real demographics, and the imagined country. The imagined country is that you are part of a village. We are not a village anymore but we still operate with the state of mind of a multi-village community.”

A Widespread Problem

A case in point are the former villages on the periphery of Beirut, which have become dense suburbs as a result of immigration from other parts of Lebanon. The southern suburb of Haret Hreik, for example, has an estimated 60,000–70,000 residents, but only counted 11,758 registered voters in the last election, according to figures from the Ministry of the Interior. The rest of the suburb’s residents must vote elsewhere in Lebanon

Political parties regularly transport city-dwelling supporters to their ancestral villages to vote on election day, and even arrange international travel for some of the more distant diaspora. Melani Cammett, a professor of international relations at Harvard University and author of a book on Lebanese clientelism, told Muftah that, in Lebanon, “politics can be fluid across the place where you live and the place where you vote because the same parties are often operating nationwide. So they’ll mobilize you in the capital where you live to ensure that you vote in the place where you’re registered.”

Mtein, a mixed Christian-Druze village in the Metn region with 3,810 registered voters, is one such village that receives an election-day influx, though few official buses were visible on May 6. A large, but uncounted, number of people registered in Mtein live in nearby cities like Beirut, Aley, or Antelias, and drive back to the village to vote. Many others have emigrated from Lebanon entirely, a fact that is reflected in the village’s many abandoned houses and its luxurious new homes, built with money earned overseas. “There are a hundreds and hundreds of emigrants,” says Walid Qantar, a local mukhtar. “Some of them left because of the war, others left for work. The people of Mtein are like any village people: they travel and migrate.”

The majority of citizens in the diaspora are not registered to vote from outside the country, thus remaining on the voter rolls of their ancestral villages alongside domestic voters. Votes from overseas, which are counted separately, numbered about 2,800 for the Metn district as a whole in the most recent elections. Few people in Mtein appear concerned about emigrant voters having undue influence. The prevailing mentality is that emigrants belong to the village as “sons of the country,” as one mukhtar put it.

In Search of Reform

The general mismatch between residency and voter registration has become fodder for grim jokes about cities of 100,000 people being controlled by voters from a single family. Talking to Muftah, Charbel Nahas, former Minister of Labor and a civil society candidate in the last parliamentary elections, wryly observed that “in most places, if you want to meet the voters the only way to do it is to go to funerals, because voters share practically nothing but the burying area. This is why the politicians do not miss one funeral: otherwise they’d be meeting people who are not voters.”

Nahas is one of a number of Lebanese who are disturbed by the discrepancy between voting location and residency, which he considers a powerful tool for what he calls “the clientalistic mafia system.”

Bassel Salloukh, professor of political science at the Lebanese American University, agrees. “The objective of the political elite has always been to control the vote as much as possible and predetermine the results of the elections,” he told Muftah. “And one of the easiest ways to do this is to make voters vote in their ancestral villages where—through family connections, through clientalistic relations, through the power of local actors—[the parties] can affect the vote as much as possible.”

So long as the traditional parties remain in power, a shift to residency-based voting will probably remain elusive. Indeed, the traditional parties won 127 out of 128 parliamentary seats in this last election. This is one reason why Ghassan Moukheiber and others say they are trying to create more empowered regional governments that would be elected on the basis of residency. Currently, only municipalities and the central government have independent authority and elections, with regional administrations functioning as bureaus of the central government. New, autonomous, and elected regional governments would provide residency-based representation at a higher level than the municipalities.

But the status quo has many stakeholders, ranging from political elites to everyday Lebanese who rely on the traditional parties for social services and representation in the country’s sectarian system. For some Lebanese, as well as for international powers, maintaining Lebanon’s stability amid regional chaos overrides other considerations. It seems likely, then, that the geographic and demographic fictions that protect Lebanon’s political normality will continue for now. “You have a complete differentiation between the real country and the alleged political society,” says Nahas. “Why is it like that? This was not an accident.”

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