The New York Times
New York, New York
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
Money From Abroad Floods Into Lebanon to Buy Votes
BEIRUT, Lebanon – By Robert F. Worth
Bryan Denton for The New York Times
Walid Maalouf, an independent candidate for Parliament, is trying to buck the political culture by visiting towns and trying to persuade the Lebanese to see candidates as potential employees.
It is election season in Lebanon, and Hussein H., a jobless 24-year-old from south Beirut, is looking forward to selling his vote to the highest bidder. "Whoever pays the most will get my vote," he said. "I won't accept less than $800." He may get more. The parliamentary elections here in June are shaping up to be among the most expensive ever held anywhere, with hundreds of millions of dollars streaming into this small country from around the globe.
Lebanon has long been seen as a battleground for regional influence, and now, with no more foreign armies on the ground, Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region are arming their allies here with campaign money in place of weapons. The result is a race that is widely seen as the freest and most competitive to be held here in decades, with a record number of candidates taking part. But it may also be the most corrupt.
Votes are being bought with cash or in-kind services. Candidates pay their competitors huge sums to withdraw. The price of favorable TV news coverage is rising, and thousands of expatriate Lebanese are being flown home, free, to vote in contested districts. The payments, according to voters, election monitors and various past and current candidates interviewed for this article, nurture a deep popular cynicism about politics in Lebanon, which is nominally perhaps the most democratic Arab state but in practice is largely governed through patronage and sectarian and clan loyalty.
Despite the vast amounts being spent, many Lebanese see the race - which pits Hezbollah and its allies against a fractious coalition of more West-friendly political groups - as almost irrelevant. Lebanon's sectarian political structure virtually guarantees a continuation of the current "national unity" government, in which the winning coalition in the 128-seat Parliament grants the loser veto powers to preserve civil peace.
Still, even a narrow win by Hezbollah and its allies, now in the parliamentary opposition, would be seen as a victory for Iran - which has financed Hezbollah for decades - and a blow to American allies in the region, especially Saudi Arabia and Egypt. So the money flows.
"We are putting a lot into this," said one adviser to the Saudi government, who added that the Saudi contribution was likely to reach hundreds of millions of dollars in a country of only four million people. "We're supporting candidates running against Hezbollah, and we're going to make Iran feel the pressure."
As it happens, Lebanon has campaign spending limits this year for the first time, and the Arab world's first system to monitor that spending, by the Lebanese chapter of Transparency International. But the limits - which are very loose to begin with - apply only in the last two months of the campaign. And they are laughably easy to circumvent, according to election monitors and Lebanese officials.
Reformers have tried and failed to introduce a uniform national ballot, which could reduce the influence of money and make the system less vulnerable to fraud. Currently, political parties or coalitions usually print up their own distinctive ballots and hand them to voters before they walk into the booth, making it easier to be sure they are getting the votes they have paid for.
Some voters, especially in competitive districts, receive cold calls offering cash for their vote. But mostly the political machines work through local patriarchs known as "electoral keys," who can deliver the votes of an entire clan in exchange for money or services - scholarships, a hospital, repaved roads and so on. In a country where the average public school teacher earns less than $700 a month, these payments are a significant source of support for many communities. And because each seat in the Lebanese Parliament is designated by religious sect, the elections tend to reinforce the essentially feudal power structure of Lebanon, with a network of men from known families providing for each sect and region.
All the major political groups deny buying votes, which is illegal under Lebanese law, but election monitors acknowledge that it is a routine practice. "Since the 1990s, more money has been coming in," said Paul Salem, the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center here. "Unfortunately, the system adjusts to that and in a way comes to expect it, especially among the poor."
In fact, many poorer Lebanese look to the elections as a kind of Christmas, when cash, health-care vouchers, meals and other handouts are abundant.
The largess extends across the globe. From Brazil to Australia, thousands of expatriates are being offered free plane trips back home to vote. Saad Hariri, the billionaire leader of the current parliamentary majority and a Saudi ally, is reputed to be the biggest election spender. It may not have helped that he kicked off his campaign with a gaudy televised event that resembled the set of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." But members of his movement say that the accusation is unfair, and that their own money is outmatched by the hundreds of millions of dollars Iran has given to Hezbollah over the years.
Candidates and political parties generally will not admit to receiving money from abroad. One of them, however, recently broke with convention by acknowledging it openly. Ahmed al-Asaad, 46, said that Saudi Arabia's government was a "significant source of support" for his campaign against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. He said his goal was to pull the Shiites of Lebanon away from Iran. "I need tools to fight back, and if the Saudis have an interest in building a state here, why shouldn't I take advantage of that?" said Mr. Asaad, an American-educated businessman, during an interview at his office just outside Beirut.
Candidates who do not ally themselves with a powerful patronage machine are almost unheard of here.
Walid Maalouf, a banker who worked briefly as a diplomat while living in the United States, is running an independent campaign on a shoestring budget, barnstorming from town to town in his mountain district. He says most people in the villages tell him he is the only politician who bothers to visit them. They are grateful, but he does not offer cash or patronage, and they are unsure what to think of him.
Recently, Mr. Maalouf said, he was trying to explain to a village leader that he should think of candidates as employees, not patrons - someone they would hire to represent them effectively in the government. "He looked at me," Mr. Maalouf recalled, "and then he said, 'Go back to America.' "