Middle East Intelligence Bulletin
Jointly published by the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon and the Middle East Forum
  Vol. 2   No. 7 Table of Contents
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August 2000 

Special Report: How Syria Orchestrates Lebanon's Elections
by Gary C. Gambill and Elie Abou Aoun

As Lebanon prepares for its third round of post-war parliamentary elections next month, politics has momentarily replaced soccer as the number one spectator sport--the country is rife with speculation about which candidates will emerge victorious at the polls. If the past is any guide, though, most Lebanese will not bother to actually vote. The perception that Syria, which occupies the country with 35,000-40,000 troops, controls the electoral process is nearly universal.

The reality is somewhat more complex. To be sure, since Syria's overthrow of Lebanon's First Republic in 1990, no vocal political opponent of Damascus has ever been elected to parliament. In fact, no sitting member of these parliaments has ever publicly called for a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon. However, unlike in Syria, legislative elections in Lebanon are not a complete sham. Syrian security forces no longer deploy outside the polling booths, citizens are not routinely arrested if they vote for the "wrong" candidates, and no one wins 99.9% of the vote.

Whereas the Syrian government directly manufactures its own electoral results and makes little effort to project a credible pretense of democracy within Syria itself, the situation in Lebanon is different. American and European recognition of Syrian authority in Lebanon has always been conditioned, in part, on Damascus maintaining the illusions of a functioning democratic system and a freely elected government to endorse the Syrian presence. The end result, of course, is very much the same--a parliament thoroughly subservient to the Syrian regime, but it is achieved not through the wholesale falsification of electoral results, but through a variety of sophisticated techniques that take place at different stages of the electoral process. This report examines each of these techniques.

Manipulation of Electoral Districts

Walid Jumblatt
Walid Jumblatt
The 1989 Taif Accord stipulated that future parliamentary elections would be held on the basis of the muhafazat, large administrative districts of which there were six in Lebanon: North Lebanon, Beirut, Mount Lebanon, Beqaa, Nabatiyya and South Lebanon. The purpose of these large electoral districts was simple: candidates in each district would have to appeal to a broader multisectarian constituency of voters in order to win. In short, holding elections on the basis of the muhafaza was seen as a vital safeguard to preserve national unity against sectarian extremism.

Prior to the 1992 parliamentary elections, however, Syrian officials grew concerned that some of their most important allies might lose the elections if they were obliged to court voters outside of their tribal and sectarian communities. In Mount Lebanon, for example, Druze militia chieftain Walid Jumblatt and his political allies faced opposition from the Christian majority, who favored rival Druze candidates aligned with the more moderate Arslan family. A new electoral law was passed which stipulated that separate elections in Mount Lebanon would be held for each local district (qada), rather than the muhafaza as a whole. This ensured the election of Jumblatt and his allies by narrowing their constituency to the predominantly Druze population of the Shouf and Aley districts. An "exception" was also made for the Beqaa, which was divided into three districts for similar, though more convoluted, political calculations. In 1996, elections in Mount Lebanon were again held at the qada level (for the same reasons mentioned above) in violation of the Taif Accord.

The electoral districts for the 2000 elections have been completely reorganized. In November and December 1999, the head of Syrian military intelligence in Lebanon, Gen. Ghazi Kanaan, and Bashar Assad held a series of meetings with Lebanese Prime Minister Salim al-Hoss, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and other pro-Syrian politicians to hammer out the details of the new electoral law, which divided the muhafazat into a total of 14 electoral districts. North Lebanon was split into two districts so as to ensure the election of Agriculture Minister Suleiman Franjieh and other Syrian allies. This involved combining the districts of Bsharri, Akkar, and Minyeh-Dinnieh even though the areas are not geographically contiguous. Mount Lebanon was divided into four districts. Once again, predominantly Druze areas were set apart in order to bolster Walid Jumblatt and his allies (though the Syrians later decided to switch their support to Arslan). The district of Metn was designed to consolidate support for Interior Minister Michel Murr. In order to reduce the number of seats won by former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, a fierce critic of the new Lebanese regime, and his allies, Beirut was sliced into three districts--one going to Hariri and the others corresponding with the power bases of his two main rivals for leadership of the Sunni community, MP Tammam Salam (District 2) and Prime Minister Hoss (District 3).

In addition to manipulating the size of electoral districts, Syria has also altered the distribution of delegates to favor areas of the country in which Syrian forces are most concentrated and have been stationed the longest. The 1992 electoral law, which added 20 seats to the parliament (another violation of the Taif Accord, which stipulated a 108-seat parliament), raised the number of seats in the Beqaa and North Lebanon by over 50%, while the number of seats for Beirut and Mount Lebanon increased by less than 20%. "In other words," wrote one prominent scholar of Lebanese politics, "those regions gained most where the Syrian Army had been stationed for fifteen years, and even in the event of a partial withdrawal would still be stationed."1

Manipulation of Electoral Lists

The electoral process in Lebanon is governed by a list system, in which each voter casts a ballot designating his/her choices for the entire bloc of representatives allotted to the district. For example, in the Baalbeck/Hermel district, there are 10 seats: 6 Shi'ite, 2 Sunni, 1 Maronite, and 1 Greek Catholic. Thus, each voter in this district chooses 6 Shi'ite candidates, 2 Sunni candidates, and so forth. This encourages individual candidates to form joint lists prior to the elections, so that voters can simply choose a predesignated slate of candidates. Although voters are permitted to cross off the names of candidates from a particular list and add others (a practice known as al-tashtib in election lingo), this rarely happens (see the section on intimidation of voters below).

One of the most critical means by which Syria manipulates the electoral process is its influence over the formation of candidate lists. Lebanon's political elites are united by little else other than their subservience to Damascus. In order to bridge sectarian, political, and ideological differences among it's allies, which could potentially be exploited by opposition candidates, Syrian officials pressure their Lebanese proteges to run joint electoral lists, the composition of which is subject to direct negotiations overseen by Damascus.

Elie Hobeiqa
Elie Hobeiqa
A good example of this pressure occurred just prior to the 1996 parliamentary elections in the south of Lebanon, when Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah addressed a mass rally of supporters and declared that the group had made an "irreversible" decision to run independent lists of candidates. A week later, Nasrallah and Nabih Berri, leader of the rival Shi'ite Amal movement, were summoned by Assad to Damascus . . . after their return, they promptly announced their commitment to run joint lists in the election (this spectacle led British journalist Graham Usher to conclude that Hezbollah "is not a fully autonomous political player in Lebanon." 2). As Jumblatt recently confessed during a speech in Saida, the Syrians also forced him to include Zaher Khatib on his list for the 1996 elections.

As for the August 2000 elections, Syria's hand in the formation of electoral lists has been quite evident. Most notably, Syrian officials have been actively involved in the establishment of the "Consensus and Renewal" list in Baabda-Aley which will oppose Jumblatt, whose loyalty to the "old guard" in Damascus has alienated the new regime of Bashar Assad. The list is headed by Jumblatt's main rival for leadership of the Druze community, Aley MP Talal Arslan, and contains representatives of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, Amal, and Hezbollah. Damascus originally insisted that former militia leader Elie Hobeiqa be included, but Hezbollah officials objected because of Hobeiqa's sordid wartime past (particularly his responsibility for the 1982 massacre of Palestinian refugees at Sabra and Shatila). A compromise was eventually reached whereby a slot on this list was left open so that Hobeiqa's supporters could write in his name.

Perhaps the best indication of how central Syria is to negotiation of electoral lists is the fact that this process, which normally intensifies during the months preceding the elections, was virtually suspended after Assad's death in June. By mid-July, so few lists had been announced that Maronite Christian Patriarch Butrous Sfeir publicly condemned those who "are hesitant in announcing their lists, waiting for the final word that does not come from Lebanon but from outside" and former justice minister Edmond Rizk decried the fact that "the setting up of lists is not based on . . . national principles and convictions." 3

Manipulation of Who Can Vote

The last two rounds of parliamentary elections were also influenced by efforts to disenfranchise certain segments of the population likely to vote against Syrian-aligned candidates and extend Lebanese citizenship to Syrian and other Arab residents in the country who could be easily pressured to vote as desired. Lebanese citizens living abroad were denied the right to vote by absentee ballot, even though many have valid passports, own property, and periodically return to visit relatives. This decision surprised no one: the hundreds of thousands of Lebanese who fled Beirut during the siege by Syrian forces in 1989-90 could not, of course, be relied upon to endorse candidates backed by Damascus.

Other methods of effectively disenfranchising voters were more subtle. For example, refugees who fled their homes during the war and live in other parts of Lebanon (mainly Beirut) were required to vote in their home districts. In 1992, the authorities set up special absentee polling booths in Beirut for refugees from the predominantly Druze districts of Shouf and Aley, but not for refugees from predominantly Christian districts.

Meanwhile, a 1994 naturalization decree extended Lebanese citizenship to approximately 300,000 foreign residents, most of them Syrians (increasing the country's official population by 10 percent). These newly-naturalized citizens played a major role in the 1996 elections, particularly in the Beqaa and the Akkar district of North Lebanon, where thousands were herded to the polls by government busses to vote for pro-Syrian candidates (according to one report, some of these "Lebanese citizens" had to be bussed in from their homes in the Syrian village of Zein Abidin).4

Intimidation, Extortion and Bribery of Voters

"It's a joke. It's not at all a free and fair election by any stretch of the imagination. The manipulations were so blatant . . . the worst Lebanon has seen''5

Paul Salem, director of the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections
9 September 1996

As illustrated above, the range of possible electoral outcomes is already heavily skewed in favor of Syrian-backed candidates well before the voting actually takes place. On election day, several additional factors converge to influence the results. The most important, overriding factor influencing the Lebanese voter is the fact that his/her vote can be observed by others. Whereas in most democratic countries the secret ballot is mandatory, in Lebanon it is more or less optional (voters are not required to go behind a curtain to place their votes). This distinction is critical. The reason it is mandatory in Western democracies is quite simple--in order to protect the voter from intimidation and bribery, it is necessary to deny him any means of making his choice publicly observable (even if he strongly wishes to do so).

Lebanese voters have no such protection. As a result, intimidation, extortion and vote-buying are rampant. In fact, they have become virtually institutionalized--political candidates are legally entitled to have a representative present at each polling station in their district and routinely instruct their "supporters" to cast their votes openly. For someone who has been paid or pressured to vote for a particular list, election day goes something like this: outside the polling station, the voter is handed a ballot with the list candidates already printed on it. He then waits in line and, under the careful gaze of security forces and representatives of this list, bypasses the curtain and drops his ballot into the box.

Since it is relatively easy to monitor people's voting behavior, powerful political figures can pressure their constituents in a variety of ways. In Lebanon, where government jobs are often obtained through contacts with political bosses rather than by merit (particularly at the municipal level), the bloated state bureaucracy obviously constitutes a massive pool of bought and sold voters. Newly naturalized Lebanese citizens constitute another large reserve of voters easily intimidated into voting for candidates backed by Damascus. Capitalizing on their memories of life in Syria, Interior Minister Michel Murr's cronies sent them scrambling to the polls in 1996 by suggesting that some of them may have obtained their citizenship "by mistake."

Hariri voting
One vote that Hariri didn't pay for in 1996
Many Lebanese, especially the poor, are readily willing to sell their votes to the highest bidder. During the 1996 parliamentary elections in Beirut, a Reuters reporter witnessed supporters of then prime minister Rafiq Hariri paying voters $64 apiece to vote for Hariri's list of candidates.6 In light of the country's dismal economic crisis and soaring unemployment rate, the number of Lebanese willing to sell their votes will skyrocket in this month's elections.

Not everyone with the financial means to buy votes can do so, however--this is where Syrian backing becomes a critical element in the equation. In both the 1992 and 1996 elections, representatives of opposition candidates were routinely kicked out of polling centers or arrested by security forces--independent candidates cannot reliably buy votes if they have no observers present at the polls.

In addition to the routine extortion and bribery of individual voters, political candidates who have risen to positions of power in the Lebanese government (all of whom did so with the explicit backing of Syria) have proven adept at using their control over the distribution of state funds and services to intimidate entire villages and municipalities into voting en masse for a given candidate by threatening or bribing local municipal leaders (mukhtars). "Certain officials are summoning mukhtars of towns and villages and asking them to coerce voters to cast a specific number of ballots in specific boxes," Maronite Patriarch Boutros Sfeir complained during a Sunday sermon from his summer residence in Diman last month.7 This method of intimidation is particularly effective in rural areas, where the cutoff of government services and utilities by powerful regime figures spurned at the polls can potentially be devastating to the well-being of the population.

More generally, all voters in Lebanon are subject to an atmosphere of tension and anxiety on election day stemming from the Syrian occupation itself. In addition to the 35-40,000 Syrian soldiers stationed in Lebanon, thousands of ununiformed Syrian intelligence agents roam the country at will. Whether or not they are actually present inside the polls is unclear, but many Lebanese certainly believe that they are and act accordingly. The heavy (and technically illegal) presence of Lebanese security forces inside polling stations reinforces this sense of trepidation.8

The Media

The role of the media in molding public perceptions of political figures is, of course, very relevant to the outcome of elections. The fact that Lebanon's post-war political elites own all major television stations and have a considerable stake in the print media tends to limit the political fortunes of opposition candidates. Television coverage of electoral campaigns in the past has tended to focus primarily on pro-government lists. Although the print media is much more willing to give voice to "opposition" candidates, the effect of print journalism on voter perceptions is more limited.

Michel Murr
Michel Murr
As a result, many "opposition" candidates are forced to rely on advertising to get their message across. Here, too, they face an uphill battle against Syrian-backed candidates. Advertising agencies frequently come under pressure to deny media exposure to "opposition" candidates. A recent illustration of this occurred late last month when Metn MP Nassib Lahoud (one of a handful of parliament members who can be said to have taken positions that are independent of, though certainly not opposed to, Syrian policy) paid a private company $10,000 to lease 200 billboards displaying the candidate and his slogan, "Voice of the Metn, the echo of Lebanon." Shortly after the first 50 billboards went up, however, representatives of the company told Lahoud's office that they had come "under pressure" to remove the displays and could not risk "destroying the business." Meanwhile, municipal workers began tearing down the displays and replacing them with those of candidates from the rival Syrian-backed list, headed by Interior Minister Michel Murr.9

Falsification of Electoral Votes

By the time election day arrives, blatant vote-rigging is not usually necessary to ensure that Syrian-backed candidates sweep the elections. In hotly contested districts, though, such measures have not been uncommon. Few were surprised when two electrical outages mysteriously interrupted the 1996 elections in South Metn--the head of the victorious list in this district was none other than Electricity Minister Elie Hobeiqa, a former militia leader and staunch ally of Syria. Most Lebanese presumed that the power in Jounieh had been cut in order to "allow ballot-stuffing to occur under cover of darkness."10

Official figures regarding the percentage of registered voters taking part in the elections are widely believed to be grossly inflated by the government in order to bolster the perceived legitimacy of the results. During the 1996 elections in the Beqaa, when late afternoon press reports estimated the participation rate at around 13%, Murr arbitrarily extended the voting hours from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. and afterwards announced that voter turnout had surged to 52%.

Electoral Boycotts

In light of the above factors compromising the integrity of the elections, most nationalist opposition figures have generally refused to participate. While in principle this has helped detract from the legitimacy of the elections, in practice it has bolstered the electoral prospects of Syrian allies--no opponents of the Syrian occupation are competing against them and the silent majority who would most likely vote against pro-Syrian electoral lists do not bother going to the ballot box.

In 1992, nearly all major Christian political figures refused to run in the elections. In Kisrawan, where there were five seats, the elections had to be postponed because the Syrian-installed government could persuade only one candidate to run for election. Most Muslim politicians also expressed doubts about the elections, but cautiously declined to support the boycott--the most notable exception being former prime minister Saeb Salam, who announced this position from the safety of his residence in Geneva. Salim al-Hoss reluctantly agreed to run only after being summoned to Damascus for a lengthy meeting with Syrian Vice-president Abdul Halim Khaddam just days before the election. Well over 70% of registered voters declined to vote in the 1992 elections. In the predominantly Maronite Christian districts of Mount Lebanon, turnout was so low that one candidate, Maha Assad, won a seat in parliament with only 41 votes.

The Christian boycott weakened in 1996, as the Kata'ib party and prominent figures such as former MP Albert Moukheiber threw their hats into the ring only to lose handily to Syrian-backed candidates (ironically, the Syrians allowed pro-boycott protesters to demonstrate openly in Moukheiber's district so as to reduce the turnout of his supporters).11 Far fewer voters boycotted the election as the population became resigned to the futility of countering the orchestrated process and more attentive to the economic incentives of selling their votes. Nevertheless, voter turnout in this election (even according to the inflated official figures) was fairly low by Western standards, particularly in areas where the complete domination of a single list was widely anticipated. Only 31% showed up to vote in Beirut, where Hariri's formidable electoral machine steam-rolled opposition candidates.

Most of the political figures who boycotted in 1996 have also refused to take part in this year's elections as well. In a joint statement released early this month, the multiconfessional Free Nationalist Current (FNC), the National Liberal Party, and the outlawed Lebanese Forces movement announced their decision to boycott the polls because "electoral districts were tailored to fit certain candidates, while Syria is flagrantly imposing its alliances and forming the lists . . . to guarantee the election of a subjugated parliament."12 The most notable exception was former president Amine Gemayel, who chose to promote the candidacy of his son Pierre and return to Lebanon.

American & European Reaction to the Elections

Syria's orchestration of Lebanese electoral politics has generally received tacit approval from Western governments. After the first round of parliamentary elections in 1992, U.S. State Department officials issued a relatively mild rebuke, expressing disappointment that "the elections were not prepared and not carried out in a manner to ensure the broadest national consensus," but said nothing of Syrian involvement in the charade.13 In 1996, American reaction was even milder. In fact, rather than seeking to limit Syrian control of the electoral process in Lebanon, the Clinton administration has sought to capitalize on it. Prior to the 1996 elections, U.S. officials asked Syria to limit the success of Hezbollah and other Islamist candidates in order to help pave the way for a peace settlement with Israel. Far from facing Western pressure to relinquish its grip on the Lebanese political system, the Syrian government sees its continued control of the political process and ability to "fine tune" the outcomes as an important means of currying favor with the West. In recent years, French and American diplomats have joined Syrian and Lebanese officials in persistently urging opposition figures and the Lebanese population as a whole to participate in the elections.


The first round of Lebanon's parliamentary elections are scheduled to take place in Mount Lebanon and North Lebanon on August 27, while those in Beirut, South Lebanon and the Beqaa Valley will occur on September 3. This parliament will in turn elect the next president of Lebanese in 2004.

"The next parliament will be a carbon copy of the 1992 and 1996 legislatures, spurred by the same regional factors," writes Al-Nahar journalist Nicolas Nassif, using a common euphemism for Syrian control over Lebanon.14 Nassif and other Lebanese political analysts estimate that only 25-30 of the 128 seats at stake in the upcoming election will witness serious electoral battles (in the Baabda-Aley, North Metn, Beirut 2 and Beirut 3 districts). A handful of so-called "opposition" candidates will no doubt be elected and perhaps even distinguish themselves as critics of the government's socio-economic policies, but they will join their colleagues in openly embracing the Syrian occupation of Lebanon.


  1 Theodor Hanf, Coexistence in Wartime Lebanon: Decline of a State and Rise of a Nation (London: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 1993), p. 625.
  2 See Graham Usher, "Hizballah, Syria and the Lebanese Elections," Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. XXVI, No. 2 (Winter 1997), pp. 59-67.
  3 Daily Star (Beirut), 14 July 2000 and 15 July 2000.
  4 Al-Nahar (Beirut), 19 August 1996.
  5 Christian Science Monitor, 9 September 1996.
  6 Reuters, 2 September 1996.
  7 Al-Nahar (Beirut), 24 July 2000.
  8 The Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections (LADE) reported that security forces were illegally present in hundreds of polling stations during the 1996 elections in Beqaa. Mideast Mirror, 17 September 1996.
  9 Daily Star (Beirut) 2 August 2000.
  10 Al-Hayat (London), 20 August 1996.
  11 The Lebanon Report, Fall 1996.
  12 Al-Hayat (London), 2 August 2000.
  13 Associated Press, 8 September 1992.
  14 Al-Nahar (Beirut), 18 July 2000.

2000 Middle East Intelligence Bulletin. All rights reserved.

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