North Africa, West Asia

Can Lebanon’s sectarian elite agree on an electoral law?

The electoral law impasse is yet further proof of how all political matters can be instrumentalized in a bigoted sectarian discourse far from the aspirations of the public.

Diala Haidar
24 April 2017
Balkis Press/ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Polling station during parliamentary elections in Beirut, Lebanon, 2009. Balkis Press/ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved.Given Lebanon’s tenuous political and sectarian balance, no wonder that the choice of an electoral system is among the most contentious topics. After all, it is the electoral system that determines how votes are translated into seats and therefore, how the sectarian/political elite predetermine their shares.

Lebanon’s electoral laws have been amended several times since the country’s independence in 1943. The last time was in 2008 as part of a political settlement, the Doha Agreement, following a deep political crisis.

Yet, all of Lebanon’s postwar electoral laws are based on the majoritarian “Block Vote” system and the same deficiencies persist, such as malapportionment, gerrymandering, the lack of pre-printed ballots, a flaw-ridden counting process, along with other grave defects in the administrative aspect of the process.

In the postwar period, and with the exception of the 2005 elections, the electoral law has been amended before each election. The constant, however, is that the choice of the different electoral laws has always mirrored the regional and domestic balance of power.

Prior to the withdrawal of the Syrian troops from Lebanon in 2005, Lebanon’s 1992, 1996, and 2000 elections were directly orchestrated by Syria. The primary role of elections was not to establish the legitimacy of the system but rather to produce the postwar political elite who can loyally implement Damascus political agenda and place Lebanon at the service of its foreign policy interests. On that basis, electoral laws were designed.

Even though the Taif Agreement stipulated that the governorates (muhafazat) are the electoral districts, the electoral districts were based on narrow political and electoral calculations. In the first two parliamentary elections in 1992 and 1996, the governorates were the basis of the electoral districts only when they diluted the votes of the opposition and served the interests of Syria allies. Whenever they fell short of this objective, they were divided into smaller districts.

In 2000, the electoral law had to accommodate the new realities on the ground. Israel had withdrawn from South Lebanon, the Christian opposition became more vocal against the Syrian domination of the postwar political order, and there was a growing political rift between President Emile Lahoud and the late Prime Minister Rafic Hariri.

As a result, the head of the Syrian military intelligence in Lebanon Ghazi Kanaan designed the infamous 2000 electoral law to contain the growing opposition. Lebanon was divided into 14 electoral districts that were gerrymandered to predetermine the results. Beirut, for example, was divided into three districts in order to reduce Rafic Hariri’s parliamentary bloc.[1]

Syria, the ultimate arbiter was out of Lebanon in 2005 following the assassination of Prime Minister Rafic Hariri. This time Lebanon’s sectarian/political elite were left to their own devices and the result was an odd electoral alliance, known as the quadrilateral alliance, between Syria’s allies Hizbullah and Berri and Syria’s opponents Saad Hariri and Walid Jumblat.

The political rivals agreed on carrying the elections based on Ghazi Kanaan 2000 electoral law. This instrumental agreement reflected the intricate domestic politics of post-Syria Lebanon. It aimed at reproducing the Taif political order with its main beneficiaries and containing the threat of the newly returned Michel Aoun.

The 2009 elections followed the Doha Agreement. The latter was a political settlement brokered by Qatar following the violent takeover of Beirut by Hezbollah. The changing regional and domestic balance of power led to the agreement that elections should be held based on the 1960 electoral law (with few amendments) which divided Lebanon into 26 middle sized electoral districts.

This law was the rallying cry of Michel Aoun who considered that it will best represent the Christian electorate. It is worth noting, however, that this same law is ruled out today by the Aounists after it led to a considerable drop in their share of the Christian vote in 2009 elections.

ethno-sectarian identities are the new political fault lines

By 2011, seismic political changes swept the region and Lebanon ceased to be the primary stage were regional contests take place. With the uprisings reaching Syria and Hezbollah’s direct military intervention to prop-up the Assad regime, Lebanon entered into a political stalemate with a complete paralysis of state institutions.

The country had no head of state for 29 months after 45 failed attempts by the parliament to elect a new president; the cabinet was paralyzed, unable to effectively respond to any of the country's myriad challenges; and Lebanon's parliamentarians extended their mandate on two consecutive occasions in a stark breach of the constitution. Still failing to agree on a new electoral law, the parliament is heading to a third extension on 15 May.

With the absence of an external arbiter, Lebanon’s sectarian/political elite failed miserably. Instead of committing to their role as public servants protecting the public good and the proper functioning of state institutions, officials served as pawns in a geopolitical regional contest while exploiting state resources to strengthen their clientilist network and entrench sectarianism.

The electoral law impasse is yet further proof of how all political matters can be instrumentalized in a bigoted sectarian discourse far from the aspirations of the public. Under the false pretext of protecting the rights of the Christians, the sectarian entrepreneurs are proposing unconstitutional electoral laws that do not come to terms with the realities of demography and geography.

In an increasingly sectarianized region where ethno-sectarian identities are the new political fault lines, promoting cross-sectarian politics is all the more exigent to safeguard Lebanon and protect the peaceful coexistence of its different sects.  

Electoral laws that compromise the equality of vote and limit voting rights to one’s sect instead of forcing politicians to formulate moderate political platforms that appeal to different sectarian groups while allowing for the emergence of cross-sectarian or anti-sectarian political groups are a definite recipe for conflict.

If this falls on the deaf ears of Lebanon’s politicians, it should mobilize the citizens who end up paying the high price for the collective failure of the sectarian elite.

[1] For a detailed examination of Lebanon’s postwar electoral laws, check The Politics of Sectarianism in Postwar Lebanon by Bassel Salloukh et al.

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