Scores of EU election observers were sent to Lebanon. Here's how they witnessed 'irregularities'

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By Shona Murray
Heads of polling stations and clerks receive ballot boxes for Sunday's parliamentarian elections in Beirut, Lebanon, May 14, 2022.
Heads of polling stations and clerks receive ballot boxes for Sunday's parliamentarian elections in Beirut, Lebanon, May 14, 2022.   -  Copyright  AP Photo/Bilal Hussein

Lebanon's parliamentary election, held last weekend, was hotly contested as the country remains severely impacted by an economic meltdown so to ensure transparency, European election observers monitored the ballot.

In total, some 167 European election observers from the 27 member states as well as Norway and Switzerland were dispatched including 30 who arrived in early April to begin the groundwork for a thorough assessment. 

They found fundamental "irregularities" in the electoral process such as vote-buying, campaign obstruction and intimidation at polling centres.

What does election monitoring entail?

In the initial countdown to polling day, the role of the observers is to meet with all relevant agents of the process in an effort to evaluate the level playing field, and whether there is a chance for all parties to advance their campaign in the interests of fairness and democracy.

“When we meet with candidates, we talk to them about how the campaign is going, what kind of campaign strategy or methods they use in order to reach out to the voters, if they feel that they can campaign freely," Nikolay Paus, an EU observer based in Tripoli in north Lebanon, told Euronews.

“We also talk to the electoral administration to see how the preparations are going. We talk to the media to see if they can campaign freely”.

Crucially the mission is not there to investigate the election or to issue a judgment on the election per se. “We are not here to interfere in the process, we are not investigators,” György Hölvényi, Chief Observer of the European Union Election Observation Mission, told reporters at the publication of the preliminary statement from the mission.

A team of two long-term observers was sent to each of the 26 districts in the country for the duration of the campaign. They visited 798 polling stations on polling day to monitor the voting process on this day.

What observers saw

Crucially, observers cannot intervene in any situation even if they witness a breach. 

Some EU Observers told Euronews they saw heavy-handed levels of intimidation and coercion by party operatives or agents of some candidates. On some occasions agents forcibly accompanied voters to the ballot box. Often these were elderly, disabled or vulnerable people.

On polling day numerous tensions were reported by observers, and the "lack of training" of staff at the centres became visible. The EU mission officially confirmed in its preliminary statement that the lack of training of staff was obvious, and they were “not in control of the voting process” where operatives and political groups were "controlling who voted."

Overall, the observer mission was given access to perform their duties, however, in one station, the Lebanese Armed Forces expelled the EU team only allowing them to return when the voting process had finished.

Once the ballot closed, votes were packed, boxes sealed and the Observer mission travelled to the tabulation centres to watch the counting process. While the mission said the counting process was largely transparent, the plethora of procedural errors in the lead-up constituted a major influence on the outcome of the result. 

Essentially, the EU concludes the secrecy of the ballot was not always guaranteed.