The approval of the new electoral law based on proportional representation by the Council of Ministers, Lebanon’s cabinet, has the potential to be a historical moment but will most likely be cursed to an early grave. When it comes to a show of hands in Parliament, the Future Movement, the Progressive Socialist Party and the smaller Christian parties are likely to succeed in voting it down. This is because under such a system they would likely lose seats in the upcoming elections and see their power wane in the next Parliament.
Putting aside the zero-sum game between the two main rival political camps, voting down the proportional representation electoral law is a blow not only to better political representation, but will allow the existing majoritarian system to continue stifling Lebanon’s economic and social development, particularly in the regions. Quite simply, under the current system politicians do not need to deliver any concrete policy platform to run on, or even deliver successful reform while in office, to win seats. Under a majoritarian system, politicians with the most votes win the seat even if they don’t secure a majority. Districts where politicians are ahead of all the other candidates are considered “safe” and little effort is exerted to win them. Instead, the focus shifts to districts that are competitive or where there is a swing-voting constituency. Campaigning for votes in these areas thus becomes an essential strategy for the party. Add to this electoral system three other features — bloc voting, sectarian polarization and clientelism — and parliamentary seats are won based on a small coalition of voters within these tightly fought districts. Most political parties in Lebanon have benefited from the majoritarian electoral system, explaining why it has been in place for so many years.
The three cruxes
Bloc voting, which is common in rural Lebanon, reduces voting power to a few members of the community, that is tribal or family elders, who decide on behalf of the tribe or family members who to vote for and everyone else follows suit. Sectarian rhetoric is the cheapest political strategy to mobilize citizens to vote, but this works only in districts with an ethnically homogenous population (otherwise it can backfire). Finally, electoral clientelism is, effectively, buying votes by giving cash or services to targeted individuals, particularly in swing districts.
By expedient exploitation of these tactics in a majoritarian system elected politicians end up in parliament with the support of a relatively small but active coalition of voters. By keeping this coalition relatively content, politicians have no incentive to push for any socioeconomic development programs in the less contested regions, since they will get elected in any case and are rarely held accountable by their own constituents.
The proportional representation system radically changes the relationship between voters and parliamentary candidates. Under this system every vote counts and seats are allocated based on the proportion of the votes won. This encourages people to vote even in districts that are dominated by a political party not of their choosing. Having more people voting will make clientelistic strategies vastly more expensive. Parties may eventually find themselves unable to buy all the votes they need directly. It could also encourage family members to break away from bloc voting since their votes would count even when they vote for the smaller and less powerful parties.
Rather than falling back on safe seats while coopting small but active groups of voters in swing districts, the political parties would have to address the electorate as a whole. This means they would have to actually devise and deliver concrete policy programs that will provide public goods and services to the larger community. Politicians would be held to account on their ability to deliver on critical issues such as infrastructure, education, health or electricity. As such it would be an impetus for socioeconomic development, particularly in the regions.
The bigger game
Proportional representation has ramifications beyond political representation, with most of the debate surrounding reform failing to recognize the link between electoral representation and economic development. The political and economic angles are intrinsically intertwined but too often discussed and debated by stakeholders, including civil society organizations, as two separate problems.
Proponents of proportional representation seem to appreciate its political end only, while those who advocate regional development seem nostalgic for the era of President Fouad Chehab, when regional development plans were drawn but never implemented. Sadly, little thinking goes into why the Chehab program did not stick: electoral reform is key to regional development.
SAMI ATALLAH is executive director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies