Monday, January 26, 2009

The Election battles begin

"Election 'Battle' Launched ~ All 'Weapons' Authorized!" proclaimed al-Manar in a provocative title for an article that declared that the political scene in Lebanon has began the race for the June 7th election. February appears to be the month when the electoral machines will be fully launched but this week has already seen the verbal onslaughts begin.

A central dispute that has arisen is the formation of a neutral bloc by President Suleiman.

Michel Aoun made his position towards was the neutral bloc crystal clear in a press conference: “The neutral bloc is a nickname for March 14,and those who consider themselves within this category should have [taken this position] ten months ago,” he told reporters.

Boutrous Harb , according to NOW Lebanon,responded to Aoun's position regarding the independent bloc by stating that "... the Free Patriotic Movement leader [Michel Aoun] feared that such a bloc would reduce his party’s seats in parliament".

Thursday, January 22, 2009

EU Observers

Interior Minister Ziad Baroud signed on Wednesday a memorandum of understanding with the European Union Ambassador to Lebanon Patrick Laurent that included provisions for a donation of four million Euros to assist Lebanon’s electoral process.

Laurent said that the coming 2009 parliamentary elections would be an opportunity for the Lebanese people to renew their democracy and political life, adding that the electoral law, ratified in September 2008, was a basic first step that respected international standards for organizing free, fair and transparent elections.

Further to this, The Vice-President of the European Parliament, Mrs. Rodi Kratsa (pictured) visited Lebanon, as head of a Delegation of Members of the European People’s Party-European Democrats (EPP-ED). During her visit, the Vice-President and the other members of the Delegation held meetings with the President of Lebanon, H.E. General Michel Sleiman and the Prime Minister, Mr. Fouad Siniora.

Mrs. Kratsa stated in reference to the possibility of sending EU Observers to Lebanon: “It is my belief that this action will strengthen mutual understanding, cooperation and trust between the EU and Lebanon . I, myself, had participated in the electoral observers’ mission of the 2005 elections. I believe that the upcoming elections will be held in a democratic manner and will allow Lebanon to have a strong Government, able to make brave decisions for the modernization of the country and for its development."

Lebanese Forces Preparing Conference to Announce Candidates for the Election

MP Strida Geagea said the Lebanese Forces are preparing for a conference soon to announce the names of the party candidates in Lebanon adding that the current 5 candidates are Elie Keyrouz and her in Bsharri, Farid Habib in Koura, Antoine Zahra in Batroun, and George Adwan in Shouf”.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Disabled being able to vote

Lebanon: Ensuring Participation of the Disabled in Elections

The inability of Lebanese citizens who are physically disabled to vote independently was poignantly captured by the Lebanese Handicapped Union (LPHU) during the 2005 elections. Danny Abou Haidar, a voter and physically disabled, is recorded on video being carried up two flights of stairs on his wheelchair by two men. The complete dependence of Mr Haidar on the two men carrying him up the stairs could not be clearer. Sylvana Lakkis, Chair Person of the LPHU, stated, “If you cannot vote in an independent way your voice cannot really be heard. In the past people who wanted to vote would have to be taken by someone to the polling station and this person could influence the vote just by the assistance they are giving. So we said this situation must change”. The LPHU in their demand for change has achieved two important steps: a new draft decree that recognizes the physically disabled right to full participation in elections and a nationwide survey the Polling Locations and Accessibility Study.

The video of Mr Haidar was part of a comprehensive campaign called “My Rights” organized by LPHU and the Youth Association for the Blind (YAB) and started in 2005. The aim of this campaign was to promote the political and social rights of people with disabilities in Lebanon. The campaign targeted public and private institutions through prominent media campaigns, while also informed people with physical disabilities that they have the “right to vote in dignity and independently”. Four years later and another election year, the “My Rights” campaign has continued its progress. On the 20th January 2009, a new draft decree was issued by the Minister of Interior Ziad Baroud stating that: the government should ensure the full participation of persons with disabilities in the electoral process. This draft decree is the first attempt by the government to safeguard the opportunity of people with disabilities to vote. Interior Minister Baroud stated that, “Lebanon has a lot to do before the accessibility of polling stations reaches international standards and I realize that access is not the only issue when it comes to the disabled being able to vote but this decree is an important first step.”

The most important part however is not the decree itself but the Polling Locations and Accessibility Study, accompanying the decree. This project will assess the accessibility of all the 1,779 possible locations for polling stations in the upcoming 2009 elections. For the first time Lebanon will find out what the state of accessibility is like at polling stations across the nation. The immediate results of this survey will be to ensure that there is at least one polling station in each district of Lebanon that is accessible for the physically disabled. Hussam Hassan, of Arabia GIS, the company responsible for the accessibility assessment stated that in all the 1,779 possible polling locations, “a full survey is being carried out, with pictures taken of the various accessibility hazards and GPS [Global Positioning System] coordinates sent”. Through a team of roughly 30 people, of which half is made up of volunteers from LPHU, the survey, photos and GPS coordinates will be sent back to the Arabia GIS headquarters in Beirut and then compiled into a interactive map. At the end of April this interactive map will be made accessible on the LPHU website so that anyone will be able to look up where their nearest accessible polling station is located and the facilities available with regard to accessibility. LPHU after the survey is completed will discuss with the Interior Ministry the best way forward in improving the accessibility of polling stations across the country. “Part of the new decree also reviews the definitions and the criteria of an accessible polling station,” Lakkis said, “and this will mean for the 2010 municipality election when polling stations are chosen they must apply to this new criteria.”

However, the number of polling stations that will be accessible for the 2009 election looks to be extremely low and was outlined in the pilot accessibility project. The pilot report concluded that of the 70 buildings in Beirut only two are, “well equipped to receive people with disability during the elections, without any intervention,” and another seven where intervention is possible before the voting process begins. “We have a long way to go, the whole of Lebanon is inaccessible for us,” Lakkis said, “but as the polling stations are usually always in schools we are trying to ensure that the government allocates a budget line to ensure that in the future all schools are accessible as this will ensure our three main rights: education, political participation and also access to emergency shelters, as schools are often used as places where people go in emergencies.”

How many people will benefit from greater accessibility is a subject of constant debate because the number of disabled people in Lebanon is unknown. Throughout the whole of the MENA region accurate statistics remain elusive primarily due to: a lack of accurate census data, no single agreed upon definition and shame regarding disability. For Lebanon the most quoted figure is from a UNDP survey from 1990 that recorded that 10% of the Lebanese population is disabled. This figure would mean that Lebanon has an average number of disabled people in the MENA region but it must be noted that this figure is contested and outdated. The only truly accurate figure that exists is 70,000 and this figure represents the number of disability cards issued by the Ministry of Interior. “However, many people don’t know where to register for the cards and we know there are many more disabled especially with the war in 2006 and the large number of serious car accidents that happen on the roads of Lebanon,” Lakkis said.

While it will remain unknown how many physically disabled people there are in Lebanon; in April for the first time what will be known is where, throughout the country, it is possible for the physically disabled to access polling stations and what is needed to be done to improve access to these polling stations. Further to this, the government for the first time ever, in the form of the draft decree, has acknowledged that it has a responsibility towards the physically disabled in fulfilling their right to vote. Lakkis stated that, “the draft decree and the accessibility review that will go online in April have already gone a long way in improving the participation of the physically disabled in Lebanese society. Both of these will allow many more people to have their rightful say in the 2009 elections and the many to come.”

Monday, January 19, 2009

Doreen Khoury from the Civil Campaign for Electoral Reform talks to NOW Lebanon

Doreen Khoury, coordinator of the Civil Campaign for Electoral Reform, sat down with NOW Lebanon’s Deborah Brown to discuss the electoral law the parliament passed on September 27 2008. The new electoral law is absent of many of the more controversial reforms proposed by the Boutros Commission’s draft, such as the formation of an Independent Election Commission, a pre-printed ballot and lowering the voting age to 18 from 21.

Khoury stated that it is, "really shameful is that we [Lebanon] in the Arab world are the only country apart from Syria that doesn’t use the pre-printed ballot. ...alarm bells should be going off....The reason that it was rejected was for political reasons.... And I think [that] happened because the parliamentary sessions on the electoral law were not televised. Many of the citizens missed the debate, which would have really surprised and shocked many of them. Many of the MPs were supporting this reform and other reforms, and then they voted against it. CCER had a representative in the session. But the fact that it wasn’t filmed, it wasn’t live, meant that many people missed a lot of the really contradictory and unconvincing statements that were being made by MPs against some of the reforms."

As for the setting up of the Independent Election Commission Khoury stated that because the original draft law failed in its first draft: "What replaced it is this condensed committee in the Ministry of the Interior which monitors campaign finance and the media. The problem with this committee is that it’s not independent."

Friday, January 16, 2009

March 14 Lebanese in the US

Members of the March 14 alliance based in the United States have sent an open letter to party officials in Lebanon voicing their displeasure with the new electoral law and requesting that specific preparations be made to accommodate Lebanese expatriates returning to vote in the June parliamentary elections, The Daily Star has learned.

The letter, sent by Serge Selwan of the National Liberal Party (NLP) on behalf "14March-US" and seen by The Daily Star, requests, among other things, the full enfranchisement of Lebanese-Americans and information on tight electoral races.

It also demands that the Lebanese government make arrangements to open Rene Mouawad Airport in Kleiat, in case Beirut's Rafik Hariri International Airport is closed prior to the polls.