Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1333, (23 February - 1 March 2017)
Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Issue 1333, (23 February - 1 March 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Old quarrels in Lebanon

Disputes over Lebanon’s parliamentary elections law are reviving old quarrels between the country’s Druze and Maronite Christians

France’s far-right National Front presidential candidate Marine Le Pen during her recent visit to Lebanon  (photos: AFP)
France’s far-right National Front presidential candidate Marine Le Pen during her recent visit to Lebanon (photos: AFP)

When Michel Aoun was elected president of Lebanon, some observers believed that the country’s crises had ended and there would be a time of stability and reconciliation after years of turmoil. However, experts on Lebanese affairs understood before the president’s election that this was not the end of the road and that disputes over the country’s parliamentary elections law were just as difficult as the problems of the presidency.

Parliamentary elections in Lebanon can be described as “the mother of all elections” because the incoming parliament will be responsible for the formation of the other political branches. Parliament elects the president, the parliamentary majority forms the cabinet, and the government does not have a mandate without a vote of confidence in parliament.

As a result, the parliamentary elections will decide the shape of the incoming political regime and the influence of the parliamentary blocs that will elect the next president.

The quarrel now is between those demanding elections based on a proportional system of lists, which supporters view as modern and not sect-based, and those who want a simple majority system of individual candidates.

Others are suggesting a mixture of both systems, and there are those who want to keep the current elections law, the so-called “Law of 60” that divides the country into electoral districts and stipulates an individual candidate system. Some are even suggesting what is known as the “Orthodox Law” that obliges voters to cast their ballot for a representative of their own sect.

The electoral law is critical because of the sectarian nature of Lebanese politics. Most, if not all, major political parties in the country are based on sect and not on political platforms. Voters choose according to their sectarian allegiances, and if there is competition it is among parties of the same sect.

As a result, the division of the electoral districts and the system used for the elections greatly influence the outcome depending on the sectarian loyalties of voters.

For example, if elections were held according to the majority system of individual candidates in a district with a Shia majority, the winners would be candidates supported by Hizbullah and Amal, both Shia parties. Any votes for the minority sects would have a limited impact. Even if such minorities won one or more seats in the district according to sect-based lists, they would only be able to win through a majority Shia vote.

The parties that support the lists system in Lebanon are Hizbullah and its allies Amal and Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM). It is widely believed that electoral lists would benefit the 8 March Movement led by Hizbullah.

Secretary-General of Hizbullah Hassan Nasrallah said that “we support the lists system, and so do the Free Patriotic Movement and our allies in the 8 March Coalition. We are trying to arrive at a law that is fair and allows everyone to be represented in parliament without excluding anyone.”

“The individual system is exclusionary because any list that wins 50 per cent plus one of the vote would win everything under the individual system. It is a winner-takes-all system, and it is exclusionary. There are important figures in the country that have been excluded for a long time because of this system, whereas lists are by nature inclusive and fair to everyone.” Nasrallah said.

Nasrallah said he was surprised that some had claimed the lists system excluded them, including the Druze, the Progressive Socialist Party (the largest Druze party), and the Future Movement (the largest Sunni party). “We are keen on not excluding any political family or party,” he said, claiming that the proportional representation system of lists did not only serve the interests of Hizbullah.

However, the group’s adversaries believe its demand for a solely list-based system is a plot against them because applying this formula would guarantee a majority for the group’s supporters and allies, they claim. This would be an attempt to take control of the incoming parliament and politically stifle rivals under the cover of the electoral law.

The Future Current and the Lebanese Forces Party do not support the lists system, and the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) headed by Druze leader Walid Jumblatt strongly opposes it. A proportional system would lead to unbalanced representation in the parliament, he said, and instability due to the sectarian character of the country.

Informed Druze sources said Jumblatt would never agree to the proportional system because he could never agree to a law that spelled out his own demise. “How could Jumblatt support a proportional system when there are only some 205,137 Druze voters in Lebanon with eight members of parliament,” they asked.

A proportional system would diminish the political weight of the Druze because several Druze MPs would be elected by non-Druze voters.

This is also a general complaint among the country’s Christians, who say that at the moment many of their MPs are elected by Muslim voters according to the current law. Foreign Minister Gebran Basil, leader of the FPM, said his party could not accept the idea that Christian MPs were elected by Druze voters.

The Christians complain that their status in Lebanon is diminishing, and they want to correct what they view as injustices against them after the Taif Agreement that ended the Lebanese Civil War. They also want a more privileged status in the country that is more consistent with their past than with their present.

Yet, Christian leaders Michel Aoun and Samir Geagea are ignoring the historical dimensions of Lebanese society. Druze sources say both men want special treatment for Christians in Lebanon, irrespective of their numbers and historical sensitivities.

The 1957 elections contested by Druze elders who won their seats with the support of the Christians were one of the causes of the 1958 Revolution, the Druze sources say. Today, it would be impossible to hold elections in Mount Lebanon against the will of the majority of the Druze who support Jumblatt and the PSP.

The Druze sources said that if others went ahead with a new electoral law that could reduce the number of their MPs and their influence in parliament, they would “call for reform of the political system, such as entirely eliminating political sectarianism, creating a Senate [probably chaired by a Druze], reducing the voting age to 18, adopting a more decentralised administration and allowing women to participate more fully in political life”.

Despite serious differences on the electoral law that defines the relative weight of each sect in the country, the general climate is leaning towards agreement, however.

But in order for this to come about there is a need for gestures by the godfathers of the system to divide the cake in such a way that is acceptable to all sect leaders. This may still be possible in the light of the cautious welcome Jumblatt has given to statements by Nasrallah and Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri.

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