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    It’s their country too

    The parliamentary debate on lowering the voting age to 18, as well as the ongoing campaign to allow Lebanese expatriates to vote from their country of residence (presumably at their local consulate or embassy) is crucial to Lebanon’s development into a full and modern democracy. What both initiatives should not become are cynical tactics in a battle to alter the sectarian demographic in favor of a particular confession. It is essential that neither initiative be opposed along those lines either. To do so would keep Lebanon in its hidebound state of sectarian suspicion. At the same time, it would exclude the voice of an important segment of the population who, in any other modern society, would have a say in the nation’s affairs.

    The arguments for lowering the voting age to 18 are well documented: If adults can fight (and presumably die) for Lebanon, drive (and try not to die) on its roads, marry and raise a family, and be held accountable in front of the law, then surely they have the right to elect the officials who represent them and who pass the laws that affect them. The era of reform that saw the voting age reduced to 18 happened over 30 years ago in most countries around the world. In fact, in 2007, Austria even allowed 16-year-olds to vote; Cuba does too and the Danes are set to follow.

    Lebanon is among the handful of nations (most of which in the Third World) that have kept the voting age at 21.

    The arguments for allowing expatriates to vote are equally straightforward. Lebanon is their country, and the fact that they live and work outside its borders should not exclude them from having a say in its future. Indeed, the current rules only serve to tarnish the electoral process. If expatriate votes had been permitted in the 2009 elections, there would have been less opportunity for corruption and fewer accusations, from both sides, that those who returned home to vote had been “bought” with a free air ticket. The fact that several political parties did pay for thousands of voters to spend a summer in Lebanon hardly enhanced Lebanon’s democratic credentials.

    We must let the expatriates vote because we should be serious about becoming a state that involves all of its citizens, wherever they are, in the decisions that affect their lives. Suffrage reform will shake up how Lebanese take part in the political debate. Allowing young adults and those living abroad into this debate can revitalize and even fundamentally alter the voter/public servant dynamic. It will broaden the national forum and make our representatives more accountable to voters from a younger, more optimistic generation, as well as those whose diaspora experience in more transparent societies has taught them to demand greater transparency and accountability from their elected officials.

    There can be no counter arguments to either lowering the legal age or allowing the expatriate vote. The only obstacle is fear, a fear that tinkering with the present mechanism will give one sect an “edge” in determining Lebanon’s future. This fear must be ignored in favor of a greater goal, that of a fully-fledged democracy with a diluted (we can’t ask for miracles overnight) sectarian mindset, one that encourages Lebanese to start voting for their country first.

    NOW Lebanon
    29.01.2010

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