The Lebanese diaspora and the upcoming elections: What lessons from the 2018 voting?

(Beirut, 2 May 2022) - The 2022 parliamentary elections in Lebanon will begin with the diaspora voting in their country of residence on 6 and 8 May. This will be the first electoral test at the national level since the October 2019 mass protests and the August 2020 Beirut blast.  Wide efforts to encourage the diaspora to vote, led by Lebanese activists all over the world, have succeeded in getting over 225,624 Lebanese on the out of country voters’ list—almost a threefold increase from the last elections in 2018.

A new joint report by the Arab Reform Initiative and The Policy Initiative examines the choices of the Lebanese diaspora in the 2018 parliamentary elections—the first time out of country voting was allowed— in order to offer some insights on the diaspora’s vote potential impact in the upcoming elections.

“A lot of hope is riding on the diaspora helping vote out the established sectarian political parties,” said Nadim Houry, executive director of the Arab Reform Initiative. “But little is known about the political preferences of this diaspora and the report seeks to provide a baseline to engage in a more informed conversation.”

The key findings from the report:

-           In 2018, Lebanese voters outside the country did not have a determining role in who made it to parliament for two main reasons: (i) out of country voters represented only 3% of Lebanese who participated in the elections (less than 50,000 of them went to the polls) and (ii) the diaspora voted for the established sectarian political parties in the most part.

-           Only 6% of out of country voters in 2018 chose candidates on opposition lists (less than 3,000 voters) while the remaining 94% selected candidates from the traditional political parties, although there were some differences between the choices of the diaspora and in-country voters.

-           The behavior of the Lebanese diaspora varies greatly from country to country, which is due in large part to the different contexts of the waves of emigration as well as the sectarian composition of a particular diaspora. Among the main countries voters were registered in, those in Canada, Australia, the United States, France, and the United Arab Emirates mostly supported Lebanese Forces and Free Patriotic Movement, while Amal and Hezbollah received most of the votes in Germany as well as across African countries, and the Future Movement performed best in Saudi Arabia. In no cases did anti-establishment lists come close to ranking first in 2018.

One of the challenges in evaluating the impact of out of country voting on anti-establishment parties’ results in 2022 is the extent to which a shift will occur amongst the diaspora supporters of traditional political parties. While one would expect a shift in voting behavior given the disastrous situation in the country, the scale of this change is unknown—particularly as political dynamics amongst Lebanese diaspora communities are not sufficiently studied and new anti-establishment parties have not campaigned extensively amongst diaspora groups.

Furthermore, the political allegiance of the additional voters registered abroad—i.e. those who were not registered outside the country in 2018—is also unknown.  While much of the drive to register additional voters came from independent groups and activists who are generally opposed to the sectarian political parties, these parties have increased their electoral activity in diasporic communities in the lead up to the elections and have maintained their clientelist networks abroad.

Ultimately, the number of emigrants who registered for the 2022 elections, despite being significantly higher than that in 2018, still only represents 6% of total eligible voters for the upcoming election. From this perspective, it becomes key to examine whether the diaspora votes can make a difference in particularly competitive electoral districts where anti-establishment parties may have a chance of winning a seat. The report provides an analysis of diaspora vote per district in 2018 to shed light on such local dynamics.

“Given Lebanon’s electoral law, in order to understand the potential of the diasporic vote to usher new political figures, one needs to examine particular districts that are competitive and where the diaspora is well-represented,” said Georgia Dagher, author of the report and researcher at The Policy Initiative. “And this is what the report seeks to do.”

Beyond the number of out of country voters, the role of the diaspora in elections and in Lebanon’s politics more broadly needs further examination. The diaspora is a source of funding for political parties and candidates in Lebanon. The diaspora can also be a key “influencer” on the voting behavior of many who are in Lebanon. Given the spiraling economic crisis, diaspora members are increasingly a key lifeline for their families in Lebanon—in some cases, the only lifeline. These diaspora members can mobilize and convince family members to go out and vote. After all, only 49% of voters participated in Lebanon in 2018, and ultimately, increasing this percentage will be essential.

Ultimately, those in the diaspora hoping for political change in Lebanon need to organize themselves for a long effort. They have shown that they are willing to protect their right to vote in Lebanon and are keen to mobilize. In and of itself, this represents a small but important step forward.

The views represented in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Arab Reform Initiative, its staff, or its board.