06/15/2017, 16.16
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The new proportional election law brings stability to Lebanon

by Fady Noun

The majoritarian system introduced in 1960 has been abolished to ensure greater representativeness. Parliament is expected to pass the bill tomorrow. Elections are set for May 2018. Both President Aoun and Prime Minister Hariri are satisfied. However, some critical issues remain: The age of voting has not been lowered, and there are no gender quotas. Diaspora MPs will be elected only in 2022.

Beirut (AsiaNews) – The agreement on a new electoral law – along with the election of a president last  31 October after two years of presidential vacancy – has certainly added an element of stability to Lebanon’s political life and the region’s current geopolitical environment.

A law based on proportional representation must be considered progress compared to the majoritarian system adopted in 1960. Since then, the country went through a war (1975-1990) that prevented elections for twenty years (1972-1992). The first elections were held after the Taif agreement (1990), but an institutional stalemate ended up extending the four-year mandate of the parliament elected in 2009.

The bill adopted by the cabinet will be voted in parliament tomorrow, Friday, only three days before the mandate of the current assembly ends. This underscores the tensions and expectations that led to its elaboration and the pride of a head of state who had "promised" that a new electoral law "would finally come into effect". However, the nature of the law and its logistical requirements, in particular the adoption of a magnetic election card, which makes electronic voting possible, requires a "technical" rather than political extension of eleven months to the current assembly’s mandate (until 20 May 2018). Lebanon’s next elections will therefore be held on the first Sunday of May (6 May 2018).

The new law will certainly allow new faces in parliament, those who had been excluded under the majoritarian system. In principle, almost everyone is more or less satisfied, starting with the president and the prime minister. For both, this is an "historic achievement" for a quest that began in 2009. As for those who do not like the law, they will just have to resign themselves.

Of course, proportional representation does not only have advantages. It can indeed disperse votes and could make Parliament ungovernable. However, the design of electoral districts should limit this possibility. Under the proposed law, Lebanon would be divided into fifteen relatively homogeneous electoral districts with, wherever possible, homogeneous communal electoral majorities: Christians (Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants), Sunni Muslims, Muslim Shias, and Druze.

On the whole, the new system will allow Christians to elect a larger number of Members of Parliament in areas with Christian electoral majorities. "It is not ideal yet, but it is great progress," said Free Patriotic Movement leader Gebran Bassil and Lebanese Forces Vice President Georges Adwan, who negotiated the new law with the Sunni-based Future Movement and Shia-based Hezbollah and Amal. It is a setback to the level of "living together", say supporters of a traditional Lebanon who fear sliding towards a "federation of communities" in which communal sentiments are stronger than the sense of shared nationhood.

What is essential, in the eyes of President Aoun and Samir Geagea, is the increase to 50 of the number of MPs that can be elected in districts with Christian majorities (instead of the current 36 out of a total of 64, half of 128-member house in which Muslims and Christians are equally represented).

As said, the system adopted does not only have advantages. Proportional representation with closed lists penalises independent candidates and smaller groups. This is the big flaw of the new law. In order to be eligible, an open list must include a number of candidates that is equal to or greater than 40 per cent of the number of seats to be filled. This could drive the independent and civil society candidates who ran in the last municipal elections to unite their efforts to counter the hegemony of traditional parties.

This is the case for the Kataeb (Phalange) party and independents such as Boutros Harb (MP for Batroun), the opponents to the Hezbollah-Amal duopoly (Ibrahim Chamseddine, son of former Imam Mohammad Mehdi Chamseddine, Shia Superior Council), and the opponents to the Free Patriotic Movement, in particular former Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi, who is trying to carve some space on the right of Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

This said, there is no need to deny the obvious: the bill, which is the result of a compromise, reflects the current balance of power, which leans in favour of Hezbollah. According to expert Tanios Chehwane, who spoke to L'Orient-Le Jour, the creation of four predominantly Shia electoral districts makes it difficult for other candidates to break out of the existing system, even with proportional representation, which the radical Shia group defended at the outset, but with Lebanon as a "single constituency", something totally unacceptable to the Christian communities. Kataeb MP Nadim Gemayel held a protest against the law, saying that Hezbollah has finally "won".

On the other hand, if the representativeness of Hezbollah is not likely to be undermined, except in case of a surprise, this will not be the case for other parties, most notably the Future Movement, Walid Jumblatt’s Socialist Progressive Party, and even for the Patriotic Movement Free, which will almost certainly lose a number of MPs.

Sign of an out-dated mind-set, the new electoral law will not lower the voting age to 18, despite the country’s youthful population, and will not introduce gender quotas. On this last point, such a step is left to each party and movement. Likewise, the new law put off the election of six MPs representing the mostly Christian Diaspora to 2022.

The 11-month delay for new elections was criticised by President Michel Aoun, but has been welcomed by the Future Movement, which is trying to gain back a volatile electorate, sensitive to regional conflicts and tempted by Hezbollah’s extremism.

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