Articles

Lebanon’s Electoral Predicament

By Dr Elie Al Hindy and Ramy Jabbour

Since the end of the civil war, Lebanon’s delicate political/sectarian balance gave the electoral law an even more central role than in normal democracies since according to the constitution and the Taef Agreement of National Reconciliation (that was the bases for ending the war), that electoral law have a dual task of representing the Lebanese voters equally and reflecting their political choices but also representing the sectarian components of the country fairly (i.e. the 18 different sects). This dual task is today, seeming more and more impossible, notably that this dual representation is supposed to be in the same and only Chamber of Parliament, until the creation of a Senate stipulated in the constitution but not yet materialized 28 years after.

The problem, embedded in the complex Lebanese political reality, lies in the fact that the power sharing consociational system gives an equal share to the two main religious components of Lebanon (the Christians and the Muslims) in the top executive positions, in the top level employments but also in the number of seats in the Government[1] and the Parliament[2], regardless of the unequal number of constituents[3]. This by default led to some inequality in the weight of the votes between the two groups[4], but also with the adoption of mixed constituency, to the election of Christian deputies by Muslim voters in several districts where they constitute the majority of voters. This reality was well manipulated by the Syrian occupation of Lebanon after the war in the consecutive elections of (1992 – 1996 – 2000 & 2005), as they constantly changed the laws, divided the districts, used gerrymandering, forced coalition, and even blunt fraud to insure that their allied in Lebanon would have a clear two/third majority in all consecutive parliaments and their opposition (notably the vocal Christian one) will always represented with a limited minimal number of seats.

Since the exit of the Syrian forces from Lebanon in 2005, the electoral reform and the correction of the Christian representation has been a constant dilemma. On one hand the Christian powers frustrated from years of oppression are eager to rebalance the scale of power sharing by pushing for an electoral law that allows them to choose the 64 deputies that the constitution reserves for them, and on the other hand the Muslims powers are reluctant to give away their control over the many Christian seats that for them are the guarantee of a fair representation since the Muslims constitute more than 60% of the voters but yet have only 50% of the seats. Every call for a proper representation of the Christians have been faced by calls of canceling the forced equality in seats under the pretext of canceling political sectarianism also stipulated for in the constitution[5]. The 2009 elections happened according to a law that was reached in a compromise in Qatar after severe political tensions and turmoil. That law raised the number of Christian deputies chosen by weighing Christian votes from a mere 18 out of 64 to approximately 36 but remained far from the Christian aspirations of proper representation.

Today Lebanon has entered the eighth consecutive year in the midst of the electoral law crisis after the promises to find a new law following the parliamentary elections in 2009. Both the parliament and the consecutive cabinets failed to find a consensual electoral law, which led to two extension of the 2009 parliament’s mandate for 4 years additional years[6]. In June 20, 2017 the second extended mandate of the parliament will end and the options to avoid vacancy in the Legislative authority are limited: Organize the elections on the current law of 2009, or to pass a new law that satisfies the aspirations of the different parties.

The first option is completely rejected by most of the political powers. It rejected by the main Christian parties, including the largest two i.e. the Lebanese Forces and the Free Patriotic Movement. It is also rejected by Shiite Duet (Hezbollah and Amal) as they prefer a shift towards a law based on proportional representation that will weaken all their opponents notably the Future Movement (of Prime Minister Hariri) and the Socialist Party (of Jumblat). It is also rejected by leftist and several civil society reformist organizations.

The second option, which is to agree on a new law, is facing serious challenges. In addition to the normal political competition with each group trying to push for a law that improves its political status or at least preserve its current, the problematic Lebanese situation and the duality of representation (for the individual citizens and for sectarian groups) expected from the new electoral law makes it a wishful delusion. It is practically impossible to give in the same electoral law to choose the same chamber the Christian voters an equal weight as the Muslim voters and yet allow them to have a decisive role in selecting most of the Christian representatives in mixed constituency districts. On the other hand calls for separating the constituents into sects and allowing each sect to choose their own representatives has been strongly rejected by many major parties including most of the Muslim parties, as unconstitutional[7], breaks the concept of equality before the law and even more critically goes against the concept of Communal Coexistence that is at the heart of Lebanon’s social peace. This separation even if partial does satisfy the Christian calls for proper representation, and they respond to the accusations of braking the pact of communal coexistence by saying that only when the system deals with the fears and needs of all the different groups and provides them with guarantees and satisfaction of their aspiration, only then will the different groups be able to participate positively in a communal coexistence and power sharing that is not at their expense.

To get out of this turmoil, the parties notably the Lebanese Forces and the Free Patriotic Movement present several different versions and suggestions based on the mixture of the majoritrian and the proportional system and division of districts that may satisfy most of the different groups, but all their attempts have been faced with rejection.

In the middle of all this quack mire the Lebanese depute Nicolas Fattouch proposed a bill to extend the parliamentarian mandate for yet another year. This proposal was strongly opposed by the main Christian parties including Lebanese Forces party, the Free Patriotic movement, and the Kataeb party. On the other hand, the proposal was supported by most of the Muslim parties notably the Shiite Duet who pushed House Speaker Nabih Berry to quickly call for a parliament session and for a vote on it, and in parallel raised the bar again stating that the only electoral law they would approve is a full proportional law.

The insistence of the Muslim parliamentary blocs (Hezbollah, Amal, Future movement & others…) to act quickly and pass a third parliamentary extension in spite of large Christian opposition led to an escalation of tensions and to calls by the LF and FPM to boycott the parliamentarian session. The two main Christian groups intended to mobilize the street and boycott the session. That session and the reactions against it would have had sever sectarian implications.

LF President Samir Geagea considered that “a full proportional law means numerical democracy[8] that is against the spirit of the Taef Accord.” He added: “For this reason we are suggesting the mixed law, specifically with the recent version presented by Minister Bassil (FPM), because it is the law that provides the best representation”.[9]

After initially using his jurisdiction to stop the preparations and implementation of the elections on the current electoral law, President Aoun was alarmed by the political tension and decided to act in accordance with the Article 59 of the constitution to delay the parliament session for one month in order to decrease tension and allow more time to find a room for a consent between the different political groups on a new electoral law that meets the aspiration of the Lebanese people without the need for any large extension or a return to the 2009 law.

With the days of this one month window of opportunity passing quickly, and the end of the parliamentary term approaching, it seems very clear that once again the solution of all crisis in Lebanon will be on the basis of “no winner and no looser” meaning that the solution can only be through a compromise. A new electoral law can only be reached with the approval of all the main parties, with each having the ability to claim a certain level of victory.

While acknowledging that Hezbollah has the upper military hand and the only ability to stop by force any decision that it does not agree with, it is very important to note that for the first time since the Taef 28 years ago, the Christian parties in Lebanon have been able to unite on a strategic vision that is allowing them to play a decisive role in a very crucial issue. This recently regained power is definitely not against the Muslims but in favor of Lebanon and a true partnership between Christians and Muslims that is the only way to preserve the coexistence, the social peace, and the model that Lebanon can present to the plural countries of the region and beyond.

[1] Article 95 section a) of the Lebanese Constitution stipulates that “The sectarian groups shall be represented in a just and equitable manner in the formation of the Cabinet”.

[2] Article 24 of the Lebanese Constitution stipulates that “… the distribution of seats shall be according to the following principles: a. Equal representation between Christians and Muslims. b. Proportional representation among the confessional groups within each of the two religious communities. c. Proportional representation among geographic regions.

[3] The Christian voters are estimated at around 38-40% and the Muslims at around 60-62%.

[4] In average, every 18000 Christian voters have a deputy; while every 27000 Muslim voters have a deputy

[5] Article 95 of the constitution presents “… the appropriate measures to bring about the abolition of political sectarianism…”.

[6] The first extension was from June 2013 till November 2014 and the second from November 2014 till June 2017.

[7] This claim is based on the introduction of the constitution that stipulates in its article I) “…There shall be no segregation of the people on the basis of any type of belonging…” and article J) “There shall be no constitutional legitimacy for any authority which contradicts the pact of communal coexistence”.

[8] In a fully proportional system, notably with the adoption of large districts the Christians who constitute 38% of the voters will at best have influence over 38% of the seats (i.e 48 seats out of the 64 seats reserved for them).

[9] Al Joumhouriya Newspaper, Geagea Insists on Bassil’s electoral law, April 10, 2017 available online on: http://www.aljoumhouria.com/news/index/360876