04/19/2017, 18.18
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Lebanon’s political institutions at stake over electoral law

by Fady Noun

President Aoun opposes extending the mandate of the current parliament. Maronite Patriarch al-Rahi is also against what he calls an "usurpation of power." The electorate’s representativeness as well as party interests are at stake. No proposal has so far received broad-based support.

Beirut (AsiaNews) – Lebanon is currently experiencing a particularly delicate phase in its institutional life.

One might have thought that, with the election of Michel Aoun as the new head of state on 31 October 2016 after two and a half years of presidential vacancy, the country had put behind the most difficult phase of its recent history.

However, domestic and regional political divisions are such that hard negotiations were needed to form a government. This was finally achieved. A government of 28 ministers led by Saad Hariri is finally in place.

Now, the third and final issue seems the most difficult to solve, namely the formulation of a new electoral law to replace the current one, which dates back to 1960, in accordance with a clause in the National Understanding (1989), known as the Taif Agreement, which put an end to Lebanon’s many wars (1975-1990).

All attempts to come up with the new election have so far hit a wall. The issue is critical after the election of President Michel Aoun. The latter has categorically refused to extent the mandate of the current parliament until the adoption of a new election law. He even took the risk of not signing the decree calling for elections within the prescribed deadlines (three months before the end of the current legislature, which ends on 20 June 2017) to put pressure on Members of Parliament (MPs). In fact, the mandate of the present House has already been extended twice, with the two extensions equal to an additional four-year legislature.

Fearing an institutional vacuum if the date of 20 June is reached without a new law, the speaker of parliament, Nabih Berry, on the proposal of MP Nicolas Fattouche, tried to get lawmakers to extent the mandate by one year. However, this decision was met by strong protests from Christian MPs, as well as from the Maronite Patriarch, Card Bechara al-Rahi. The latter described such a move as an "usurpation of power", saying that it would even be better to go to a vote with the current law (1960).

In order to prevent a vote on extending the mandate on 13 April, Christian parties planned to hold large-scale street demonstrations that could have resulted in a major split along confessional lines. Fortunately, President Michel Aoun exercised his prerogatives under Article 59 of the Constitution, and postponed the scheduled session of parliament by a month.

What will happen now? The problem is that the current electoral law is based on the first-past-the-post principle, a voting system that favours the formation of large confessional blocs. The Lebanese Parliament is made up of 128 deputies, divided equally between Christians and Muslims.

Under the electoral law, only 36 of these deputies, or slightly more than half of the MPs concerned, are elected in electoral districts with a Christian majority. The others 28 MPs are elected on lists set up by Muslim and Druze blocs, and are thus politically linked to the denominational blocs that represent these communities.

The new electoral law should ideally improve the percentage of deputies elected by Christian majorities from 36 to 46 (in the best scenario), given that the percentage of Christians in Lebanon in relation to the total population Is about 30 per cent.

This is the issue of the current political struggle. Hezbollah and Nabih Berry’s Amal movement want to impose a new electoral law based on proportional representation in a single nation-wide constituency. For the Lebanese Forces, indirectly the electoral law would become majoritarian.

For his part, fearing the appearance of other ruling Druze political leaders, Walid Jumblatt wants to see elections held on the basis of the current law.

President Michel Aoun’ Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) came up with a middle, intermediate solution. Its proposal calls for a hybrid electoral law combining majoritarian and proportional elements.

Lebanon is in fact such a small country. Simulations used by all blocs make election results predictable, within a margin of only a few seats. Intensive negotiations are underway over the percentage of seats to be filled by majoritarian and proportional representation. Meanwhile, the one-month countdown allowed by Article 59 of the Constitution has begun.

Al-Rahi’s warning

In a recent televised interview, the leader of the Maronite Church, Cardinal Rai, was particularly sceptical about "the chances of implementing the rule of law" under the present circumstances, marked by absolute political selfishness, unrestrained clientelism and rampant corruption "that prevent any loyalty to the state".

With respect to extending the mandate of the current parliament, the Patriarch said: "We believe that it would be nothing less than a usurpation of power." Whilst warning that "We will not stand idly by if this happens", he refused to clarify his thoughts, saying that he needed to consult first with the Maronite Bishops' Assembly.

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