Thursday,20 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1135, 14 - 20 February
Thursday,20 September, 2018
Issue 1135, 14 - 20 February

Ahram Weekly

Waiting to vote

Lebanese politicians are fielding proposals to revise the voting system while the date for legislative elections remains uncertain, writes Andrew Bossone from Beirut

Al-Ahram Weekly

The chances of Lebanon’s parliamentary elections happening on time are looking less and less likely, but that hasn’t stopped politicians from engaging in a favourite political pastime: gerrymandering.

Less than four months before parliamentary elections they are scheduled, Lebanese politicians — who have a less than stellar reputation for coming to consensus on passing laws — are debating several new plans to overhaul the country’s electoral system. For some, the discussions are a distraction from important issues, especially because it’s possible that the current voting system will remain in place.

“This is a conscious strategy by the government to dilute the real issues that should be real elections issues,” says Nadine Moawad, an activist with an initiative called Take Back the Parliament. “In an election season, the issues are supposed to be inflation, jobs, environment, women’s rights, workers’ rights, all of these. But to avoid that, they make the discussion before the elections about the elections, which is ridiculous.”

There are many issues politicians are avoiding, not only with the electoral law. There’s no solution to daily electricity shortages, rising prices, national debt and personal status laws that discriminate against women and foreigners.

Even on the voting issue itself, politicians are shying away from addressing the big problem of fixing corruption. As long as Lebanon fails to adopt uniform ballots, politicians can bribe voters and inspect the ballot cards later to make sure they cast the purchased vote.

“Don’t vote for this octopus,” Moawad said. “Vote based on these issues.”

Not only are voters sceptical about the elections, but also so are politicians. Many politicians have said they hope the elections will occur on time, but also don’t expect that to happen. In public, politicians are saying they hope to push through a new law, but some believe that behind the scenes they are waiting to see what happens in Syria before making a decision.

“It will be difficult for the elections to be held on time, particularly since the magnitude of the gap between the political sides is clear,” Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya MP Emad Hout said recently in an interview on Radio Orient.

Lebanese politics is based on a proportional system for members of the country’s 18 religious sects, which dates to French rule, with subsequent updates. The most recent large decision came in the Taif Agreement, or the Document of National Accord, following the end of the Lebanese civil war. Many protests in the last few years have directly challenged this sectarian system, but rare is the politician willing to do so.

The proposals submitted to the parliamentary subcommittee tasked with reviewing them all retain some form of the sectarian system. The most extreme is the so-called Orthodox Gathering draft law that gives each sect the power to elect its own lawmakers through proportional representation and turns Lebanon into a single electoral district.

Another proposal by Phalange Party MP Sami Gemayel would give 40 per cent of the seats to sects, with the remaining 60 per cent being a winner-takes-all system that divides Lebanon into 36 districts and nine provinces. Many of Gemayel’s constituents, who are Christian, are concerned about losing political power, so he made sure to say that his plan ensures seats to 56 Christian lawmakers.

“This proposal offers real partnership among the Lebanese”, Gemayel said. “We insist that the elections be held on time based on a new law that ensures fair representation.”

Yet another proposal submitted in the final week by Gemayel’s ally in the 14 March alliance, MP Ahmed Fatfat, increases the winner-takes-all proportion to 70 per cent. Other ideas have also been presented such as dividing the country’s 26 districts in half, or increasing them to as much as 50.

For the average voter, and even for the politicians who make decisions, it must be quite confusing. Whether or not they adopt a new system, both the president and parliament speaker have indicated they are ready to delay elections, which would be the first time since the civil war. For an initiative like Take Back the Parliament, which hopes to field non-sectarian candidates, planning becomes difficult if not impossible. And for voters, it’s not clear who or what they would be voting for, other than someone from their sect.

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