Monday,21 August, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1345, (18 - 24 May 2017)
Monday,21 August, 2017
Issue 1345, (18 - 24 May 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Electoral disputes in Lebanon

Disputes over a proposed new electoral law in Lebanon threaten to upset the delicate balance between the country’s different religious sects and communities

Electoral disputes in Lebanon
Electoral disputes in Lebanon

There is an ongoing debate about new electoral procedures in Lebanon that may appear unintelligible to some abroad.

The latest proposal was a draft law suggested by the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), Foreign Minister Gebran Bassel, son-in-law of incumbent President Michel Aoun, who has suggested a two-stage law consisting of preliminary sect-based elections followed by general elections in each constituency. However, this draft law has been viewed as fanning sectarianism because it replaces the current practice of voters from all sects choosing a representative from each sect in the elections.

The proposed law also contradicts the outlook of the Shia group Hizbullah, Aoun’s ally, which wants to hold elections in the whole of Lebanon at one time or to divide the country into a limited number of large districts. This proposal is viewed as favouring Hizbullah and the Shia Amal Movement since the Shia electorate in Lebanon almost always votes for these two groups and is not divided like other sects.

The alliance led by the two groups is strong across the country, and it has allies among the Lebanese Sunnis. Sunni parties allied with Hizbullah are believed to be capable of winning one-third of the Sunni vote, which currently cannot be translated into parliamentary seats and puts the future of the two Shia groups partly in the hands of the Sunnis.

“The Lebanese people are worried about the repercussions of the electoral law crisis,” said sheikh Nabil Qauuq, a member of Hizbullah’s Central Council, this week. “This crisis has endured because some political forces are intransigent and do not want to resolve the issue or to find a compromise. They are digging in their heels and pulling the country into a vortex that is reviving long-standing political tensions and divisions.”

“The electoral law crisis has reached a critical mass that threatens national consensus and political stability. Every electoral win comes at their expense, representing a loss for Lebanon and the Lebanese people. Any compromise to reach a consensus on a new electoral law would be a certain gain for all the Lebanese people,” Qauuq said.

He said that Hizbullah wanted to save the country from a political crisis and was at the forefront of making political compromises to pave the way for a consensus among all the country’s political forces. “Patriotic duty demands action on two priorities: First, to protect the national consensus and political stability; and second, to find an electoral consensus that is acceptable to all forces,” he added.

The dispute is a serious test of the strategic alliance between Hizbullah and the FPM since the former wants the whole of Lebanon to be one electoral district or at most several districts, while the latter wants to see the system of constituencies with local quotas maintained.

The latest proposal is a mixture of the two, showing a clear disparity between the FPM and Hizbullah, and leading the latter to refuse to accept the proposed draft after it became apparent that it did not take into consideration the interests of Hizbullah allies Suleiman Frangieh, head of the Christian Marada Movement, and various Sunni and Druze figures.

Bassel has stood by his proposal, saying that it will allow Christians to vote in nearly 58 MPs. Christians account for around half the total number of MPs in the Lebanese parliament.

Hizbullah has been unwilling to compromise on the size of its allies or their right to have representatives in parliament. Members of the Hizbullah-led March 8 Coalition, which includes the FPM, believe the sectarian criteria used in the proposals lie at the heart of the problem.

If each sect only chose its own representatives, as proposed by Bassel, this would lead to fewer Christian representatives, indicating that the growing imbalance between Muslims and Christians in Lebanon cannot be addressed by sectarian voting.

It also indicates that the demographic reality of the country cannot be addressed by Christian isolationism, but that this needs to see positive expansionism into other communities. A nationalist Christian leader in Lebanon could perhaps redress the demographic imbalance by embracing all Lebanese communities.

The rhetoric of reform adopted by Aoun upon his return to Lebanon succeeded in penetrating Islamist circles and crossed over sectarian lines, with the result that Aoun now has a nationalist dimension that goes beyond the Christian community. The FPM should build on this rhetoric instead of over-emphasising Christian sensitivities at the expense of building the state and fighting corruption.

If the FPM embraced trans-sectarian action, it could also win seats with Shia, Sunni and Druze voters, instead of the Christian votes that push it towards isolationism.

Those involved in the negotiations on the new electoral law warn that the numbers game will be a certain loss for the country’s Christians in the long run and that it must be replaced by nationalist guarantees that provide protection for everyone.

They add that the argument that says that an overall quota will “wipe out” the rights of the Christians is not true because the country’s Muslims are not a homogenous bloc. They warn that for those worried about being overwhelmed by numbers, the individual majority system is more risky than the overall one because it allows small forces to win in individual constituencies with just 51 per cent of the vote.

Frangieh also disagrees with Bassel on the electoral law because of fears that it will gather Lebanon’s Christians in the north of the country, potentially ending Frangieh’s historical domination of the Zgharta district.

While the Christian FPM and the Lebanese Forces led by Samir Geagea are trying to benefit from their new alliance and the momentum of Aoun reaching power to bolster Christian gains and maintain their leadership, the Druze led by Waleed Jumblatt are most concerned about changes in the electoral system because these could reduce their quota of MPs, currently more than the sect’s percentage of the population.

Aoun used a constitutional right that his predecessors had rarely used to postpone parliament’s sessions by one month in April in order to prevent it from voting to extend its tenure for the third time in fewer than four years. The current parliament should have ended in June 2013, but MPs extended it by 13 months. A second extension was approved for two years and seven months in November 2014.

Supporters of the FPM and the Lebanese Forces then called for demonstrations in the centre of Beirut to prevent MPs from adopting a law that would extend the parliament until 20 June 2018. Due to the failure of political rivals to agree on the new electoral law, each side is now trying to impose a law that would give it more seats than its opponents or eliminate them altogether.

The Future Movement (FM) has said it will bring a vote on the law to cabinet, but most observers say this is unlikely and believe its goal is to make political gains. Any vote would end in stalemate, especially on an electoral law that has in any case failed to receive consensus.

The Lebanese Shias are among the least concerned about the elections and the electoral law as they are the most organised among the largest sects. The Sunnis are also at ease because they are the largest sect in terms of voters. The Christians, meanwhile, are struggling because they want their quota of MPs to reflect their quota in the Constitution, while they currently account for one third.

The debate on the proposed law has led to discussion on amending the Lebanese Constitution, including by creating an upper house of parliament in which each sect would choose its senators. Bassel has suggested that the new house, dubbed the senate, should be chaired by an Orthodox Christian, even though traditionally proposals for an upper house demand that its leadership should be Druze.

Despite these quarrels, many Lebanese officials are optimistic that a solution will be found. Interior Minister Nehad Al-Mashnouq, close to Sunni Prime Minister and FM leader Saad Al-Hariri, said that agreement was close on the new electoral law, meaning that the elections could be held on time.

The present debate also means that a possible consensus may be found before the end of the present parliament in a move typical of Lebanon – which has become used to solving problems at the last possible minute.

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