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Voting age won't be lowered in time for polls - campaigners

BEIRUT: A proposed reduction in the minimum voting age will not be in place in time for this summer's keenly contested parliamentary elections even if the change is adopted by Parliament next month, electoral reform campaigners have said. Speaker Nabih Berri has proposed a parliamentary session to decide on whether the voting age should be reduced from 21 to 18. But electoral reform activists say that if it is passed by Parliament, the change will only be adopted after the voter lists for this summer's poll have been finalized, leaving thousands of 18- to 21-year-olds unable to take part in the election despite having the legal right to vote.

Nadine Farghal, coordinator and legal consultant of the Civil Campaign for Electoral Reform, told The Daily Star that the changes would come too late for this year's crucial poll and expressed "regret" that the issue has been raised so close to the deadline for the voter lists to be finalized.

"The Parliament will discuss this on March 19th, but the voter lists close on March 10th, so there's no way that these changes, should they pass, will be in place for this summer's elections," she said. "If it passes, the first time they will be able to vote will be in the municipal elections in 2010."

The news will come as a blow to those who had hoped for an eleventh hour expansion of voting rights before the June 7th poll that would see many of Lebanon's young population politically enfranchised for the first time.

Interior minister Ziad Baroud, who has overseen several important changes to Lebanon's election laws, had hinted earlier this week that the voting age reduction could be in place in time for elections, claiming that the reform would have "immediate results" if passed by Parliament. "This step will be considered a clear message to the youth that they are now part of the equation," he said.

But Osama Safa, from the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, said that there was "no prospect" of the reforms being implemented before Lebanon goes to the polls. "Having this on March 19, 9 days after the closure of the voting lists, will make sure this doesn't happen in time for the election," he said.

The idea of lowering the voting age has caused concern among some observers, who say a sudden enfranchisement of younger people could upset the delicate balance of Lebanese politics. But Safa rejected the idea that the move would benefit one party over the other. "The voting is still going to be on sectarian lines," he said. "It's not going to upset any confessional balance."