Home Economics & Policy The vice of vested interest

The vice of vested interest

by Rony Al-Assaad

If there is one thing that has become clear since the debate over electoral reform resurfaced in Lebanon, as it does every four years, it is that the main political forces in the country consider elections to be a form of leverage over the people rather than an opportunity to ensure fair and democratic representation. While the Council of Ministers, Lebanon’s cabinet, passed an electoral reform law in August, whether this passes Parliament — and if it does, how it will have been altered — is still yet to be seen. Unfortunately, the election law that governs next year’s ballot will likely resemble the previous one: Distorted legislation that comes out of an 11th hour negotiation and falls short of basic democratic standards. In short, it is unlikely that the ruling elite will allow any significant rocking of the boat.

In any case, the public should know why our so-called leaders will let us down once again, specifically with regards to adopting a system of proportional representation. An analysis of politicians’ motives and their public statements, which are constantly adapted to fit changing political and electoral interests,  reveals much.

Behind the bluff

Let’s start with the opposition, specifically the Future Movement. They consider proportional representation as an electoral “weapon” which aims to undermine their dominance and position as the main representative of the Sunni sect, given the number of independent Sunni candidates. At the same time, Future is convinced that proportional representation will not break the monopoly their main political opponents — the Amal Movement and Hezbollah — have over the Shia sect, as these parties enjoy overwhelming representative power in their districts of popular support, such as South Lebanon, the Bekaa and Hermel. Future also rejects the proportional representation system as long as Hezbollah maintains its arsenal of weapons, as it firmly believes that arms undermine democracy, freedom to run for elections and even the security of candidates if they win; an example they often cite is Hezbollah’s direct interference in the municipal elections to deter candidates from running or pressuring them to withdraw. Do, however, keep in mind that this practice is prevalent in any area in Lebanon where one political party enjoys overwhelming hegemony. Future also fails to explain how the excuse of Hezbollah’s arms does not apply in a ‘winner take all’         electoral system.

At the same time, the Future Movement is waiting for a clear position to be declared by its Christian allies, who are generally more supportive of smaller districts since they fear that larger districts may erode the share of parliamentary power allocated to them under the 1989 Taif Accord, which is 64 deputies. It is worth noting that both demographic changes and the 2008 electoral law detracted greatly from the ability of Christian voters to choose their representatives — in six out of the 12 districts where there is a Christian majority, Muslim votes determine the election results. Future Movement deputies have stated that their party might support Fouad Boutros’ draft law if it was proposed as a serious alternative; this law proposes a mixed electoral system where 70 percent of parliamentary seats are elected according to the majoritarian electoral system at the qaza (or district) level, and 30 percent of seats are filled according to the proportional representation system at the mohafaza (or governorate) level.

The Christian parties in the opposition (the Lebanese Forces, the Kataeb and independent politicians) support small districts, and through the Bkerke committee — which brought together the four main opposition and governing Christian parties — they have put forth two proposals: either a modified version of the electoral law 25/2008 where Lebanon is divided into some 50 districts of four seats each at most, or a proportional representation system in 14 to 15 districts. Many see the position of the Christian opposition parties stemming from their wish not to go against their Sunni ally, as well as the fact that proportional representation is not viewed favorably among most Christians or in Christian political circles. This latter point is somewhat odd for opposition Christian parties, however, as proportional representation could help weaken the monopoly on parliamentary representation the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) currently enjoys in some areas in Mount Lebanon (the district with the largest concentration of Christians), as a first-past-the-post ballot renders opposition votes in these areas inert.

The government’s side

As for the parliamentary majority, they have an interest in adopting the proportional representation system based on statistics from the 2009 parliamentary elections. According to repeated public statements by some of its leading members and its own polls, Hezbollah believes its popular base is large enough to ensure positive results within any system. However, it is also possible that the proportional representation system would go against Hezbollah’s interests, for it would certainly contribute to breaking (even if initially to a small extent) the bilateral monopoly of Hezbollah and the Amal Movement over Shia representation as independent Shia candidates gain more confidence to run, given that they have a chance of winning a seat. Hezbollah’s position is also linked to the position of its main Christian ally, the FPM, as Hezbollah needs their support in the districts with a Christian majority.

The most recent FPM position called for adopting proportional representation with Lebanon as a single district. This is mainly an attempt to gather the Christian votes that are scattered across the country outside of Mount Lebanon, which the FPM believes would go to its candidates. The FPM believes that its political power could be maintained by proportional representation since it should guarantee it a number of seats despite a perceived, but unproven, decline in popularity.

Deputy Walid Joumblatt (the main representative of the Druze sect) has outright rejected the proportional representation system. This stems from his belief that it will reduce his representation in Parliament, which is “exaggerated” in the present system where he is able to ensure the election of loyal Christian and Sunni deputies through Druze votes. Hence, even though the cabinet has voted in favor of the law it is unlikely to garner sufficient support in Parliament (at least in the form passed by the cabinet), given that Joumblatt has the ability to sway the final outcome. That is unless a new political tradeoff is struck among the different political blocks, which is not uncommon for Lebanon’s opportunistic political parties.

Lebanon may have a long history of elections, but this has rarely translated into the creation of functioning national institutions. If we are to transform our “culture” of holding elections into a state with accountable institutions and a participatory body politic, then we need an electoral law that ensures fair representation and the secrecy of the ballot within an independent and transparent organizational structure. Sadly this looks like it will not be the case, and now we know why.


RONY AL-ASSAAD is director of the Civil Campaign for Electoral Reform (CCER). This article expresses the personal views of the author and does not represent the official policy of the CCER.

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