The illusion of change

Lebanon’s new electoral law is not so proportional

Lebanon is set to elect 128 Members of Parliament (MPs) on May 6, based on a long-awaited proportional system. Proportionality, in theory, ensures better representation of the population by allocating for each list a number of seats that is proportional to the number of votes it received. This is a clear step up from the majoritarian rule whereby all seats within an electoral district are allocated to the list with a simple majority of votes, which can leave more than half of voters unrepresented. However, the picture is not as straightforward in Lebanon, where the representativeness is called into question by several factors inherent to the law itself.

An elimination threshold

Elimination thresholds are not uncommon in elections around the world. Unlike here, however, they are usually set at a low and fixed percentage. The Lebanese law introduces a district-specific threshold (the total number of valid votes in a district divided by the number of seats in the same district) that determines whether lists qualify in the electoral count. Any list with a number of votes lower than the threshold is eliminated from the race and the votes it received are discarded. The allocation of seats then happens based on a second calculation similar to the first threshold but with a new total number of votes after subtracting the votes of the eliminated list(s). Dividing by a smaller total raises the overall proportion of votes for the lists that were not eliminated. This two-step calculation is not a technical necessity. It is designed to raise the required number of votes necessary to secure one seat on the one hand, and inflate the proportion allocated to the qualifying lists on the other.

Electoral districts, large and small

One of the hailed changes brought about by the new law is the enlarging of the electoral districts by reducing their total number from 26 to 15. Generally speaking, larger districts equal fairer representation and fewer disenfranchised voters and this indeed is a step forward. Yet the new law offers a peculiarity in this regard: some of the 15 large districts are divided into two, three, or four smaller districts and voters can only cast a preferential vote for a candidate running in their sub-district. This greatly limits voter choice and their ability to influence the ranking of candidates within their chosen list.

Sectarian variable

True to the terms of the Taif Accord, the new electoral law allocates a set number of seats per religious sect. This is meant to ensure fair representation of all 18 religious communities in the country. However, the number of seats allocated per sect does not correspond to the current demography. Setting aside this flawed premise of fair sectarian representation, the sectarian variable greatly reduces representativeness of voters’ will. It effectively means that the candidates who make it to Parliament are not the candidates who received the most votes within a given district but the candidates who received the most votes within their sect, within their district.

A unique take on preferential votes

While preferential votes are usually used to determine the order of candidates within a list, this law uses them to determine the order of the candidates across all the winning lists. In order to determine which candidates will fill the seats secured by each list, the candidates of all the winning lists are ranked in one combined list according to their overall percentage of preferential votes by sub-district. This gives priority to major parties in filling the allocated seats and to preferential vote-getters in districts or sub-districts with lower overall vote totals. The fairer alternative would be to rank candidates based on preferential votes within each list, order the lists from right to left based on popularity, and proceed in filling the seats by going through the lists horizontally, taking one candidate per list every time.

Coupled with the sectarian variable, this translates into major parties securing the seats of the major sects of each district, leaving only minority seats to be potentially taken up by minor lists. This arrangement ensures that there is no threat to the major zu’ama’s claim to parliamentary seats in their home district.

While the new law allows for a greater possibility that minor coalitions will gain representation, the shift in that direction is marginal. All in all, it would take years of political organizing for any new players to effectively work around it and be represented.

Zeina Ammar holds a Master in Public Policy (MPP) from the University of Oxford.