This is an opinion article - It represents author opinion
By Peter Speetjens - middleeasteye.net/
With Lebanese elections set to take place in May, the customary
tug-of-war has started over exactly how those elections are to take
place. Democracy in Lebanon is all about foreplay. For months on end, the country’s political elite engages in courtesy
visits and tete-a-tetes behind closed doors to determine the rules of
the electoral game. Once agreed, the “moment supreme” at the ballot box
is but a formality, as 90 percent of the outcome can be predicted. A
Tom and Jerry cartoon doing the rounds on social media illustrates the
current hustle and bustle in Lebanon’s political circles. It shows the
famous cat and mouse accompanied by their bulky bulldog neighbor
sitting around a juicy steak. Taking turns, the characters suggest how to best divide it.
Naturally, each one wants the biggest chunk for himself and what was
supposed to be a cosy dinner ends up in a massive brawl. Whoever
posted the cartoon replaced the heads of Tom, Jerry and the dog with the
faces of Gebran Bassil, Mohamed Raad and Saad Hariri. For those not familiar with Lebanese political theatre, Bassil is
Christian, minister of foreign affairs and son-in-law of President
Michel Aoun; Raad is Shia and has been a Hezbollah MP since 1992; Hariri
is Sunni, current prime minister and son of the slain former prime
minister Rafik Hariri.
The “steak” on the table is the electoral law proposed by President
Aoun and his Free Patriotic Party. It suggests dividing Lebanon into
some 15 electoral districts that will be decided by proportional
representation rather than winner takes all Proportional
representation has its benefits. In many of Lebanon’s electoral
districts, it is a thin line between winning and losing. Sometimes, a
few hundred votes make the difference between all or nothing, which
swings the door wide open for vote buying.
Being awarded the
number of seats relative to the proportion of the vote would lead to
fairer representation and a greater variety in parliament. In addition,
it would be much harder to influence the elections through vote buying. All
of Lebanon’s Christian factions support the proposal, which in itself
is no small feat. It is almost a matter of principle for Lebanese
Christians to not agree on anything. The proposal, furthermore, has the
backing of Amal and Hezbollah, the country’s main Shia parties.
Aoun celebrates his win in October 2016 (AFP)
Surprisingly, the latter prompted Makram Rabah to argue here that Hezbollah is the one and only culprit frustrating the proper functioning of Lebanon’s democracy.
to him, Hezbollah stands to lose seats under the new law. It only
supports it to weaken “traditional parties and their leaders” and,
ultimately, “to make the Lebanese state implode”.
reasoning is not very convincing. For one, we are left wondering what
“traditional parties and leaders” Hezbollah seeks to undermine, given
the fact that all the main Christian and Shia factions support the initiative. And why would Hezbollah want Lebanon to implode?
Hariri and Jumblatt have made their calculations and concluded they are likely to lose seats under the new regime
pinpointing Lebanon’s Party of God arguably tells us more about his own
political preferences. The two factions that vehemently oppose Aoun’s
proposal, and thus currently obstruct the proper functioning of
Lebanon’s democracy, are Saad Hariri and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt.
reasons for doing so are understandable enough. Like every other
Lebanese politician and party, including Hezbollah, they have made their
calculations and concluded they are likely to lose seats under the new
Take Hariri, whose Future Party went down from 36 seats in
2005 to 26 in 2009, and which stands to lose even more under Aoun’s
proposal, especially in the north of the country. Through the
overwhelming presence of Sunni voters in Tripoli and surroundings,
Hariri was able to dominate the nominations for nearly all seats.
Saad Hariri takes a selfie after leaving a polling station during municipal elections on 8 May 2016 in Beirut (AFP)
a system of proportional representation, that would no longer be the
case. Traditional Christian leaders will be able to win their fair share
without the support and blessing of Hariri. Yet, even among Sunnis,
Hariri is not guaranteed to win.
In 2009, North Lebanon had 28
seats up for grabs, 11 of which were reserved for Sunnis. Hariri is
unlikely to even win all of them, as his popularity and political and
financial clout have waned considerably in recent years.
predominantly Sunni city of Tripoli, he will face stiff competition from
local political leaders, his former lieutenant Ashraf Rifi and a core
of Islamist parties. Some believe Hariri may gain as few as seven seats in the north, while his total number of parliamentary seats may be halved
has warned that as long as Hezbollah is armed, no fair elections based
on proportional representation are feasible. Their guns could force
voters away from the ballot box.
Rabah repeated the argument. Yet
Hezbollah is hardly present in Tripoli and the north, which does not
even have one Shia seat on offer. Likewise, there are only three Sunni
seats on offer in the south, Lebanon’s Shia heartland.
Drastic changes required
Hariri and Jumblatt are negotiating to either stick to the electoral
law that governed the 2009 elections or adopt a “hybrid” electoral law.
Most Lebanese politicians, however, detest the last electoral law, which
is the main reason no elections have taken place since 2009.
is clear that a hybrid law is a thinly veiled attempt to engineer in
detail the electoral outcome. It would also make Lebanon the laughing
stock among law schools the world over
A hybrid law
would see Lebanon split up into dozens of tiny districts that are
decided by winner-takes-all and a handful of large districts decided by
It is clear that such a law is a
thinly veiled attempt to engineer in detail the electoral outcome. It
would also make Lebanon the laughing stock among lawyers and law schools
the world over.
The coming months will see if Hariri and
Jumblatt will be able to negotiate a compromise or receive some sort of
sweetener deal to help swallow their pride. If not, I think,
proportional representation is a small step towards fairer
If the Lebanese are truly interested in establishing a modern democracy, however, more drastic changes are required.
they will have to abolish the archaic and rigid confessional system
first installed by the French, which attributes a fixed number of seats
to every sect. Ultimately, they will have to accept the basic fact that
it is not religion that makes a man.
- Peter Speetjens is
a Dutch journalist who lived in Lebanon for 20 years, regularly travels
to India and has a special interest in how 19th-century writers helped
shape our conceptions of the world today.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
After Michel Aoun is elected Lebanese president in October 2016, people
take to the streets in Jdeideh, on the northern outskirts of Beirut