Al-Ahram Weekly Online   4 - 10 October 2012
Issue No. 1117
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Democratic doubts

Parliamentary elections are approaching in 2013, but Lebanese politicians are fighting over electoral laws, putting in question whether elections will be held at all, writes Andrew Bossone

With a few exceptions, most politicians agree that Lebanon's electoral law, which originates in 1960, is out dated and needs to be changed. One of the key reforms needed, for example, is the standardisation of ballots. Political parties write their own ballots, which encourages corruption because the unique ballots can be traced to the voter, encouraging vote buying.

"The adoption of pre-printed ballots guarantees the secrecy of the vote. This reform does not exist in current law," said Rony Al-Assad, coordinator of the Civil Campaign for Electoral Reform (CCER).

It's uncertain that such reform would pass by the government, however, because elected politicians have benefited from existing ballots. Additionally, Lebanon's fractured political landscape is based on a sectarian system, so if the law is perceived to benefit one group over another it could increase resentment among groups that are already divided.

"The government presented a draft law made to suit Hizbullah and its allies, whether through proportionality or through the division of constituencies," said a statement from the office of former prime minister Saad Al-Hariri.

It's not certain who will be the winners and losers with a new system, but it appears that the Sunnis of the Future Party of Al-Hariri and the Druze of the Progressive Socialist Party lead by Walid Jumblatt will stand to lose the most, and so they have been the most vocal opponents of the proposal approved by the cabinet. Both have said they will make sure the proposal dies in parliament.

"The ministry [of interior] is ready to draft an alternative draft law if this law is rejected. The final decision is in the hands of parliament," said Interior Minister Marwan Charbel, who drafted the proposal, in an interview with Voice of Lebanon radio station.

The parliament is studying four proposals: Charbel's law that redraws voting areas into 13 districts (two in Beirut, two in the South, three in the Bekaa, three in the North and three in Mount Lebanon) and is based proportional representation. Another proposal by a Future Movement MP increases the seats in parliament, while the proposal by the Free Patriotic Movement of Michel Aoun has each sect elect its own lawmakers based on allotted proportions. The 14 March coalition has proposed dividing Lebanon into 50 areas, retaining the current winner-takes-all system.

Al-Assad of CCER said he would ideally like to see a non-sectarian system, but has taken a practical stance to advocate for the adoption of a proportional system and merging of current voting districts to reflect the proportions.

"As long as the [winner takes all] system is adopted, the results would be the same except perhaps in terms of more representation to some communities (for example, Christian), but on a general level the results are the same and the faces are the same," he said.

Christians have typically been the most opposed to changes in the voting system because their population has not grown as quickly as Muslims, but they have retained much of the power given to them under French rule. Many Christian leaders, however, are accepting the possible reforms because it could allow Lebanese living abroad to vote, which could make up for their numbers inside the country.

"It is imperative that the new law is a true and fair representation for all components of the Lebanese society," said a statement of Maronite bishops following a recent meeting.

Drafts of the law also include a proposal that would allow the name of a woman to be on every voting list. Al-Assad also emphasises that an independent body should oversee elections rather than the Interior Ministry, and that laws should be adopted regarding campaign finance and political spending on media and advertising.

The greatest reform, however, could be to allow independent parties a place on the ballot. This would break the two-party system based on support for or against the Syrian government. The conflict in Syria could also ruin the chances of an election, but CCER's Al-Assad says politicians will push for the elections to rally support for their parties.

"Not holding elections in Lebanon was always a challenge for us, and perhaps the situation in Syria will have a greater impact, but I think that the elections will go ahead, especially if they agree on the electoral law, because everyone wants to test his strength and his popular size and pursuit of power," Al-Assad said.

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