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The Diasporic Vote: Potential and challenges for the opposition

Georgia Dagher

The 2022 Lebanese parliamentary elections will start with out of country voting on May 6 and May 8, as thousands of Lebanese abroad will head to the polls in their countries of residence. There is a general sense of hope that the diaspora’s votes can deliver wins to anti-establishment political groups. These hopes are founded on two assumptions: that Lebanese abroad may vote freely given that they are disconnected from sectarian political parties’ clientelist networks; and that many of them have been pushed to emigrate by a political class which has driven the country into its most severe economic crisis.

While no recent figures on the diaspora’s political leanings exist, a look at their choices in the 2018 elections—when out of country voting was introduced—shows that they did not vote as one homogeneous bloc, and that their votes had no marginal impact.

In fact, 94% of them voted for the traditional sectarian political parties, with only 6% (less than 3,000 voters) choosing candidates on anti-establishment electoral lists.1 Their voting choices varied across countries, explained in part by the contexts of the different waves of emigration and sectarian composition of diaspora communities. Overall, the Lebanese Forces and the Free Patriotic Movement were the most popular parties abroad, particularly in France, Canada, Australia, the United States, and the United Arab Emirates. Voters in Germany and across West African countries mostly voted for Amal and Hezbollah, while the Future Movement—which is not running as a party this year—performed best in Saudi Arabia.

Anti-establishment lists, despite performing poorly, received their best results in France and the UAE (13% in each). These two countries, in addition to the GCC overall, have seen the largest increase in registered voters, who also are, on average, younger2—possibly driven by higher emigration to these countries in recent years. The youth were the most active during the October 2019 mass protests, and anti-establishment political groups generally have a younger voter base, which could suggest that there is some potential for these groups to garner more support in France and the UAE in the 2022 elections.

In addition to being distributed across countries, members of the diaspora vote in 15 different electoral districts, and their impact will depend on the share of voters they represent out of the total number of eligible voters. While the number of emigrants registered outside the country is now almost three times higher than it was in 2018, their votes will be key in three particular electoral districts: North 3, Mount Lebanon 4, and Beirut 2.

These three districts have seen the largest increases in their number of registered voters abroad. Further, the share of diaspora voters, out of the total number of eligible voters, is close to the electoral threshold for winning a seat in all three districts:

- In North 3, the diaspora represents 10.4% of eligible voters, and the threshold is 10% 
- In Mount Lebanon 4, the diaspora represents 7.4% of eligible voters, and the threshold is 7.7%
- In Beirut 2, the diaspora represents 7.1%, and the threshold is 9.1%

Despite the increase in the number of registered voters abroad, anti-establishment groups will face two challenges in particular. 

First, there is limited information on independent candidates and opposition lists accessible to the diaspora. While much of the drive to register additional voters came from independent groups generally opposed to the sectarian political parties, anti-establishment groups have not campaigned extensively outside the country. Traditional Lebanese media, which remains an important source of information for many Lebanese emigrants, has also largely favored establishment political parties;3 which have increased their electoral activity abroad in the lead up to the elections. 

Second, even in those districts where the diaspora vote will be key, the lack of an allied opposition will dilute their votes and thus not necessarily be to the disadvantage of traditional political parties. In other words, even if turnout rates are high and the diaspora shows support for anti-establishment electoral lists, there is a risk that their votes will be distributed across these lists, and therefore have little impact on whether an opposition candidate makes it to parliament. 

Ultimately, over 90% of eligible voters are in Lebanon, and opposition groups hoping to make it to parliament should intensify their mobilization efforts in the few remaining days until election day. Voters in the country will determine the results. They are the ones that should be encouraged to vote, as only 49% of them did in 2018, and they need to be convinced to vote for anti-establishment political groups, as only 3% did in 2018. 

[1] Dagher, G. (2022). “The Lebanese Diaspora and the Upcoming Elections: Lessons from the 2018 Voting.” Arab Reform Initiative and The Policy Initiative.  

[2] TPI calculations based on the Ministry of Interior and Municipalities’ voters list.

[3] For example, between April 1 and April 15, 75% of candidates who were invited to political talk shows on the main Lebanese TV stations (LBCI, MTV, Al-Jadeed, Al-Manar, OTV, NBN) are running on establishment lists, while only 25% are on anti-establishment electoral lists.  

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