Since appointing the National Commission on Parliamentary Electoral Law (the Fouad Boutros Commission) in 2005, Lebanese politicians have been “working” on an electoral law that employs proportional representation (PR), a system that allocates seats in Parliament based on the percentage of votes a candidate list receives. PR is more representative than a majoritarian or first-past-the-post voting system. In all past Lebanese elections, the list with the most votes won all the seats on offer, with their opponents getting nothing (even if a competing list received 49 percent of the vote). PR gives voice to that 49 percent and increases the chance for independent candidates to actually get elected. However, it undeniably threatens the established power structure. No surprise then, that after 13 years of studying how to best adopt a PR system for Lebanon, the law unveiled in mid-June introduces PR, but at the same time does its utmost to preserve the interests of the entrenched politico-communal establishment.
First and foremost, for PR to be truly effective, electoral districts must be large. The Lebanese Association for the Democratization of Elections (LADE) set a criteria of 20 seats per electoral district as an ideal standard in any new law. While Executive does not necessarily endorse 20 as a magic number, the laws of math do agree that larger districts lead to more plurality in a PR system than smaller districts. The law agreed last month comes nowhere close to the LADE proposal. While the 26 electoral districts used in the 2009 election have been reduced to 15, the largest of the new electoral districts has 13 seats and the smallest a mere five. Only six of the districts have 10 or more seats and six of the districts have seven or fewer seats.
Additionally, the threshold for a list to receive seats is not only different across the country, in most instances it is far too high for non-establishment candidates to actually stand a chance. A list needs 20 percent of the vote to qualify for a seat in the Saida-Jezzine electoral district. In all but four of 15 electoral districts, the threshold for a seat is 10 percent of the vote or higher. It is for the pundits to debate which political parties benefit most as a result of this uneven playing field, but fairness and equality are clear losers.
The work starts now
For all its flaws, however, this is the law we have to work with. Politicians gave themselves 11 months to crunch numbers and find the best strategies to cling to power. They’ve even legally allowed lists and individual candidates to spend millions of dollars per district on electioneering such as flying voters in from abroad (arguably unnecessary when expatriates are also given the right to vote in their country of residence).
The coming campaign will be long (it’s clearly already started). It will no doubt be very dirty. There will be no shortage of sectarian rhetoric and fear mongering. While Lebanon might not have to fear online meddling and fake news peddling by Russian hackers aimed at influencing the election, there will be deliberate distortions of fact, attempts at voter manipulation, and outright lies — all homegrown and apart from the interference of well-known foreign meddlers which have tried to manipulate every election of the past 25 years.
For all its flaws, however, this is the law we have to work with
For two decades Executive has been reporting on and analyzing the economic pulse in this country. There’s no denying that Lebanon is much improved compared to 20 years ago. However, the pace of that improvement has been woefully slow, and far too many promises remain unkept (affordable housing, 24-hour electricity and fast internet, to name a few). The upcoming parliamentary elections offer an opportunity to reverse this momentum, and individual voters have an important role to play in achieving that goal.
While this magazine’s archives are filled with evidence that the country has been very badly mismanaged, it is not our place to suggest for whom readers vote. What we demand, however, is that they think critically. Democratic politics the world over have arguably become (or at least heavily gravitated toward) beauty contests filled with meaningless sound bites. Promises without detailed action plans.
In the articles that follow, we offer a detailed explanation of the new electoral law to help readers understand a somewhat confusing system. Our goal is to inform, and we promise to do our best to hold candidates’ feet to the fire in the coming 10 months. We’ll ask tough questions and won’t be afraid to identify bullshit as such when we smell it. We challenge our readers to do the same whenever and wherever they encounter candidates trying to woo them. Even if this law does not result in a massive shakeup of the parties represented in Parliament, the more we can all steer the discussion over the next few months toward practical ways to improve this country and away from emptiness and vitriol, the better the chance we can build a stronger Lebanon post-election regardless of who wins.