The international attention that Lebanon currently receives is focused on its proximity to the war in Syria - with an estimated 1.5million Syrian refugees in the country. This would be a huge number for any country, but for Lebanon with its population of 4 million it's a significant burden. However, a burden seen by most political actors in Lebanon as their duty.
The country has long been intimately involved in various regional conflicts, and has half a million long term Palestinian refugees, and within its borders Hezbollah, an armed group as well as a political party. But last summer it was the large protests about the government's failure to deal with domestic waste that re-focused the international community on the country. The "You Stink" protest brought thousands out on to the streets of Beirut when the closure of the landfill site meant there was nowhere to dispose of the city's rubbish.
It was this in the back of my mind when I was asked, and agreed, to be part of an international delegation to make an assessment of the country's readiness for the forthcoming municipal and mayoral elections. The delegation was organised by the National Democratic Institute (NDI), a not-for-profit, nongovernmental organisation that supports democratic institutions and practices around the world. It comprised a former Canadian MP, a Tunisian civil society activist who runs an election observation network, NDI's regional director for the Middle East and North Africa and me. We met civil society activists, government officials, electoral authorities, representatives of political groups and members of the international community.
Politics in Lebanon
Lebanon's politics are paralysed at the national level. The country has been without a President since the previous incumbent's tenure ended in May 2014, and despite numerous attempts by MPs to elect a new one there has been no agreement. In addition, due to the regional crisis, parliamentary elections have been postponed in both 2013 and 2014.
Political parties are organised primarily on what is called "confessional", as well as sectarian lines. Getting agreement is not an easy matter. Being without a President, parliament is no longer meeting. It wasn't surprising to find a general mood of depression in the political world in Lebanon, and considerable scepticism that the local elections would go ahead.
Local election issues
Last summer's crisis over waste management brought citizens together across sectarian and economic divisions, it also served to highlight the importance of municipal councils as the last bastion of functioning governance. With interest in service delivery and transparency at an all-time high, municipal council and mayoral elections give an important opportunity for citizens to hold their authorities to account. Electoral preparations and campaigning also provide an opportunity for renewed debate about decentralisation, given the strong role of central government over municipal affairs and finances.
A November 2015 poll by NDI and its partner, the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections (LADE), found that 60% of respondents believe these elections represent a chance to bring about change. When probed, basic services and infrastructure, in addition to Syrian refugees, were most commonly cited as priorities for local governance.
The elections are due to take place every six years. Despite the Ministry of the Interior and Municipalities, which is responsible for elections, having called elections for four consecutive Sundays in May, we met many people who were not sure they would actually happen. Some political parties were not prepared to begin spending on the elections without clearer indications they were going ahead. The lack of campaigning was evident and it was only on our final afternoon that we saw our first political poster. Nonetheless it was clear that all the required procedures have been followed.
We were told by many that local elections, particularly in rural areas, have an emphasis on family links and local connections rather than political issues. It's also usual for many areas that political parties submit joint candidate lists. This is clearly within the rules, but does give the political parties the power to decide who will govern when there is only one list submitted to the voters.
Women and young people
We were asked to look at the extent to which women and young people were likely to be involved in the election. With a higher than usual voting age of 21, and even higher age of 25 for standing for elected office, Lebanon struggles to engage young people in political activity. Despite the involvement of women in many aspects of economic life, including at a high level, female representation is amongst the worst for the region and globally. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union at parliamentary level only 3.1% of representatives are women, 177th out of 191 countries.
Many in civil society want a legally mandated quota for women. The suggested percentage is 30%, in line with the UN Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) to which Lebanon is a signatory. This is not an issue that can be addressed before the local elections, but there is pressure for this to be part of electoral reform before the next parliamentary elections that are expected in 2017.
The political party representatives we met all recognised the need to involve more women and young people, however only one party had specific mechanisms to encourage this. This party was committed to ensuring that women made up 25% of their lists for the election. We were repeatedly told that this was a cultural issue and that many people did not accept women as candidates, but this is not borne out by research that reports 85% of those surveyed supportive of women's involvement.
New political activists
Following the protests last summer, a number of Beirut residents decided that rather than just complain they should come together to seek election and formed Beirut Medinati, which means Beirut My Town. They have a 10-point political platform as their manifesto for the local elections. Some political party representatives applauded the content of the political platform and felt that whatever the outcome of the elections the policies that had been put forward should be taken up. Beirut Medinati are aiming to govern in Beirut, however it is a concern that should they fail to gain many seats their enthusiasm might wane and the potential to move politics towards a more ideological basis could easily be lost.
General voting issues
Although the focus was specifically on the forthcoming elections a number of issues about the electoral process were inevitably part of discussions. Most astonishing was the fact that there are no pre-printed ballot papers - completely outside normal international standards. Not only does this mean that the integrity of the vote is threatened but it is one very important element in ensuring the secrecy of the ballot. There have been proposals to rectify this following a number of international organisations recommending a change.
Voters are automatically registered to vote in their family's ancestral home, or if a married woman in their husband's family's ancestral home. This means that particularly for local elections there is often no connection between the voter and those elected to deliver services. As candidates must stand in the area where they are registered it creates additional difficulties for women as they may not be known in their husband's local area.
Failure to elect a President and hold parliamentary elections are key elements of the political paralysis in Lebanon. Successful local elections could be important in giving the people of Lebanon some confidence that democracy is in place and that elections matter. That many local issues fundamentally affect people's lives adds another level of importance to the process. Political parties and candidates should campaign on issues such as transport, housing and waste management in order to build support for elections and the role of local government.
The delegation recommended that in order to increase confidence that the elections will take place, the Ministry needs to begin an immediate voter information campaign. While it was accepted by all that a small number of places may not be able to hold elections due to violent unrest, for the vast majority there is no reason for the elections not to take place.
There are fundamental issues about the election process that cannot be addressed this time but should be addressed in the future. The most important is to take steps to ensure the secrecy of the ballot through pre-printed ballot papers, and arrangements for voting and counting that eliminate the many current possibilities for identifying who has voted for whom. Alongside this, lowering the age for voting and being a candidate would encourage greater involvement of young people.
The country also needs to demonstrate through actions and not just words that it wants women to be more fully involved in the electoral process as candidates and elected representatives. There is no doubt that the quickest way to do this would be through a legislative quota, but nothing prevents parties from having their own voluntary quotas and ensuring that women and young people are an integral part of their own decision making processes.
Lebanon is in the middle of a crisis. The proximity of fighting and the influx of refugees is challenging. Nonetheless proper political processes should be in place and holding successful local elections would be an important step for the country. While support to Lebanon to manage the refugee crisis and the defence issues is vital the international community should also encourage the development of local democratic institutions.