Friday,24 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1350, (22 June - 5 July 2017)
Friday,24 November, 2017
Issue 1350, (22 June - 5 July 2017)

Ahram Weekly

New electoral law in Lebanon

After months of debate, Lebanon has opted for one of the world’s most complicated election systems, writes Hassan Al-Qishawi in Beirut

New electoral law in Lebanon
New electoral law in Lebanon

They say the devil is in the details — but the details are the true forte of the Lebanese people.

After a six-month debate that began after Michel Aoun was elected president and years of discussion, the people of Lebanon have finally decided on an electoral law that may be the most complex of its kind in the world. The law divides the country into 15 electoral districts and extends the tenure of the current parliament by another 11 months.

The Lebanese parliament approved the new electoral law submitted by the government after three hours of debate. Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri said that the settlement reached on the electoral process preserved the rights of the various religious sects in Lebanon and did not promote sectarianism.

Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, also leader of the Free Patriotic Movement and the president’s son-in-law, said that rival political parties had reached an agreement on the new electoral law on 13 June, offsetting a possible political crisis and paving the way for holding parliamentary elections.

“We have vanquished the spectres of a political vacuum or further extensions of the current parliament,” Bassil told a news conference after a cabinet meeting on the new electoral law. “Lebanon will have a new law that to a large extent rectifies problems in parliamentary representation.”

Minister of Interior Nehad Mashnouq said it would take at least seven months to prepare for elections under the new law. The 128 seats in the Lebanese parliament would be divided equally among Christians and Muslims, as agreed under the Taif Agreement that ended the Lebanese Civil War.

The country’s last parliamentary elections were held in 2009, and new elections have been postponed twice since then, with Lebanon’s MPs choosing to extend their tenure rather than address key disputes about how to hold elections.

Experts believe that the new legislation is more progressive than the unpopular earlier law and that it is a step in the right direction to restore parliamentary life to Lebanon after an eight-year hiatus.

The law under which parliamentary elections are held in Lebanon is among the most important in Lebanese political life. It is the basis of both the legislative and the executive branches of government, as the country’s president is chosen by parliament which is elected under the election law.

Because of the country’s sectarian nature in which certain parties control certain sects, it is likely that voters will choose a dominant sectarian party and it is unlikely that they will switch allegiances. The outcome of the elections, however, is decided on the distribution of votes across electoral districts. For example, if one sect is divided between two districts and its share in each is less than 50 per cent, this will undermine the sect’s voting power even if it has MPs in both districts.

Such considerations have been particularly relevant to the country’s Christians since many of their voters are to be found in smaller districts. In elections in larger districts their votes will likely be ineffective, with MPs elected by majority Muslim votes.

Hizbullah prefers quotas because this boosts its control over Shia votes, especially in the light of its coalition with the fellow Shia group Amal. Things are different for the Sunnis, since one third of its votes could be enough to sink the sect’s main Future Movement, and the majority of the Sunni opposition is close to Hizbullah.

As a result, a quota system could yield more Sunni MPs who are loyal or close to Hizbullah.

In order to address such demands, a list law for larger districts has been issued, and voters are allowed to cast their ballots twice, once in the larger electoral district using lists, and once at the smaller district level where voters choose their favourite individual candidate.

The winning lists are decided based on the larger districts, but the order of successful MPs on these lists is based on the number of votes they accrue in the smaller districts.

The large districts are likely to be majority Muslim, and the list system allows Muslim voters to choose Christian MPs. Preferential voting in smaller districts allows Christian voters to choose their representatives from longer lists without Muslims picking the Christian candidates.

This system gives the majority in larger districts the upper hand in choosing the winning lists, and gives minorities the right to pick their representatives by deciding their order on the lists.

Despite the long discussions that preceded the passage of the new law, it is not universally popular. Berri has described the law as “the best available,” while Future Movement leader Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri has described it as “the best possible for the moment”.

Many activists object to the new law as they would prefer to see the whole of Lebanon being treated as one giant electoral district, which would weaken sectarianism in the country and boost the chances of civil society and left-wing candidates being elected to parliament who do not have a majority in any particular district but have substantial support across the country.

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