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Will the debate on “megacentres” delay the legislative elections in Lebanon?

BEIRUT: The Lebanese government is expected to make a decision on Thursday on whether to create so-called megacenters to facilitate citizens’ voting in the country’s upcoming legislative elections.

The purpose of these facilities, favored by President Michel Aoun, is to allow voters to vote outside their registration area, which would save them having to return to their hometown to do so.

However, it has been suggested that if the centers are set up, it could lead to the postponement of the elections, currently scheduled for May 15.

After a ministerial committee completed a report on the matter, Cabinet must now decide how to proceed based on its findings. If he approves of the idea, a bill will have to be submitted to parliament to allow the establishment of the centres.

While Aoun’s camp asserted that “no legal measures were necessary to adopt the megacenters. It is very easy if the political intention is there,” the opposition said, “the issue requires legal amendments and will entail a very high financial cost.”

In the committee’s report, Tourism Minister Walid Nassar said, “The cost of establishing eight megacenters…does not exceed $2 million and they can be completed in less than three weeks.

But Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi said the technical requirements of setting up the facilities would cause disruption.

“The ministerial committee is against the postponement of the elections and insists that they be held on the appointed date without any delay,” he said.

The disruption would be caused by the centers needing to have the “principles and requirements necessary to have a good election”, he said.

“It’s not a tent that can be set up in the quarters with an urn above a table. It’s much more complicated.

“Megacenters without an electronic connection, fiber optics and a central server providing the necessary link are not real megacenters, unless they want them to look like tents.”

He added: “The company that will be in charge of this project will need up to three months to complete the task and connect the main electoral centers to the mother server. Moreover, what applies to Lebanese voters living outside the country should apply to voters residing in the country.

Political observers said that the insistence of Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement to establish megacenters was aimed at “imposing the extension of the mandate of the current parliament so that this same parliament elects the next president within the framework of a certain regulation”.

Presidential elections are due to take place in October.

But the FPM said its call for the creation of power centers came in response to changed circumstances since the 2018 election.

“This is due to the significant economic collapse that the country has been suffering from since 2019 and because it would be difficult for voters to travel to their villages due to the high cost of transportation,” he said.

The huge spike in the price of gasoline – to nearly 500,000 Lebanese pounds ($330) a gallon – meant the centers would save the Lebanese people billions of lira, FPM said.

“Furthermore, megacenters help to free voters from many restrictions, increase voter turnout and promote the legitimacy of the electoral process,” he said.

The FPM fears that the high cost of travel to vote will deter many people from doing so. But political observers said other political parties, particularly Hezbollah and the Amal Movement, oppose the idea of ​​megacenters because it could dilute the influence they hold in smaller villages and towns.

Other observers said the FPM may deliberately seek to delay the elections to give it a greater chance of winning more parliamentary seats in certain regions.

“The goal could be even bigger than that. He could seek to create a parliamentary vacuum in order to disrupt the upcoming presidential elections,” an observer said. “In this way, Aoun remains the president to run the affairs of the State.”

MP Mohammad Hajjar, from the Future Parliamentary Bloc which represents the Sunni majority in parliament, told Arab News that if parliament decides to extend its term, MPs from the bloc will resign.

“This decision has been made and is irreversible. As for the postponement of the elections, that is another story. We insist that the legislative elections be organized on time. However, if something unexpected happens, that’s another matter.