Expats, Immigrants, Descendants, Sectarianism And The Vote


By Ghassan Karam, Special to Ya Libnan

It is very rare to witness as much confusion, and attention paid to the superficial as has characterized the dialogue regarding who is to be given the right to vote in Lebanese elections. And that is unfortunate. One would have expected the discourse to be serious and well informed since the issue deals with the fundamental democratic institution of extending the suffrage to many that have been denied the right unjustly and unfairly.

Universal unrestricted suffrage does not exist anywhere in the world and is unlikely to become the law of the land anywhere in the foreseeable future.  There appears to be a universal restriction on the right to vote for anyone under 18 years of age in addition to the restrictions against extending the right to those that are mentally ill, felons, unregistered or that do not meet the requirement to vote from outside the country in question. External voting exists in one form or another in 115 countries out of more than the 200 states in the world and even when external voting exists it does so in a big variety of ways.

Let us make it absolutely clear from the outset that giving the right to vote is not the same as making sure that the affected individuals have the proper access to the facilities that would enable them to cast that cherished vote. To offer the right and withhold the access is cruel; in effect it is equivalent to not having offered the right in the first place. But what is arguably more important, in the Lebanese case, is the need to distinguish between expatriates, first generation immigrants and all other individuals that claim to be of Lebanese descendancy.

No one could argue against offering the right to vote to civil servants who are stationed overseas, businesspeople whose work demands make it difficult to be in the country during election times, students who are completing their education overseas in addition to those that are seeking medical services abroad.  Obviously the expatriates, those that work overseas on either temporary or permanent bases also deserve the right to vote because they do contribute to the welfare of the state and have a strong connection to it. But the right of the long term immigrants is not so obvious. When would a Lebanese descendant lose the right to vote? I should hope that the answer is not never. Suffrage is a privilege so that those that inhabit a place can have a say in how it is run. The vote is not an inalienable right given to all irrespective of where they live and without any regard to how long they have not resided in the country.

No country gives its citizens an unrestricted right to vote from overseas especially if the number of potential voters from abroad is larger than those at home. Armenia, who is in a similar demographic situation as Lebanon; 2.5 million Armenians live at home and 8 million are scattered all over the world, adopted a law in 2006 that does not allow any external voting. Even other countries that do not have to worry about disproportionate external voting place some rather strict limits about residency. In many cases a citizen loses the right to vote if she has been outside the country for fifteen years and in some cases the right to vote requires that the voter must have been outside the country for six years or less. Does it make any sense to offer a person whose parents left Lebanon say a hundred years ago the right to decide how I am to live and under what laws? Why should a rational person offer to give an outsider the right to veto anything and everything that is of importance to the community? Are we serious when we say that we want to give say, the grandchildren of Danny Thomas, Jamie Farr, John Sunnunu , Selma Hayek ,Paul Anka and Shakirathe right to vote in Lebanese elections? What do they now about what is good for Lebanon and why should they have a say in how we choose to conduct our affairs?

I am afraid that the demands by many of the political leaders to offer the Lebanese citizenship to 11-15 million people, who live overseas,who do not speak the language in most case and who have nothing but an emotional attachment to some aspects of Lebanese culture is a well orchestrated ploy to resist deconfessionalism. These are the same pols who declared their allegiance to the Taef accords but opposed implementing them. The veil has fallen and the true colour of these political leaders is revealed for all to see. They are nothing but bigoted leaders whose backward sectarian ideology is simply built on grabbing power and discriminating against the other. To claim that their position is legitimate as a result of the geopolitical developments is pure rubbish. It is nothing but a sick excuse from a sick mind.