The Election Law: Rejections, Vetoes and Bogus Positions

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The positions that have been taking regarding the ongoing debate around the election law suggest several things. (Photo: Haitham alMoussawi)

By: Nicolas Nassif

Published Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Between their first meeting last week and the second meeting they held on Monday, the joint parliamentary committees added nothing new to the discussion of the three draft electoral laws except more tension, intransigence and insistence on previously held positions.

The idea of maintaining the law that has been in effect since 2008 is rejected by the vast majority. The government’s draft electoral law faces obstacles because a major party in the country is opposed to proportional representation. The two other proposed draft election laws - one put forth by the Orthodox Gathering requiring each sect to elect its MPs and the other dividing Lebanon into small electoral districts - were also met by vetoes.

March 8 and March 14 forces faced a serious impasse in Monday’s session, and are likely to be met with the same in future sessions. They do not want to return to the 2008 law but they are unable to reach an agreement on an alternative proposal at the present time.

None of the parties that have declared their rejection of the different draft election laws have a viable alternative proposal. More importantly, they all know that whatever election law is adopted for the 2013 elections, it will not change the division in the parliament between March 8 and 14 forces, which has been a reality since 2005.

The positions that have been taking regarding the ongoing debate around the election law suggest several things.

One, parliamentary committees are not the proper place to come up with an understanding between the two sides. This allows for consultations and efforts outside the parliament. It appears that it is too early to talk about this understanding now. The behind-the-scenes discussions, like the one between the Lebanese Forces (LF) and the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) aimed at procuring MP Walid Jumblatt’s support for the small electoral districts law, have nothing to do with reaching such an understanding.

Two, the positions of the major Christian parties – represented by Bkerke (the Maronite Church), former president Amin Gemayel, MP Michel Aoun and head of the LF Samir Geagea – reflect an unfamiliar dynamism in dealing with the election law. They all reject the 2008 law but they differ on the alternative. This Christian dynamism points to an attempt – the first since the 1992 elections – to take charge of this issue in an effort to devise a law that would enable Christian voters to choose Christian MPs.

This is happening 20 years after the negative experience that the four Christian parties had with the 1992 elections. Under Syrian tutelage over Lebanon at the time, an election law was imposed on Christians leading them to boycott the elections and resulting in their exclusion from government. It appears that what is happening today is an attempt to correct this imbalance.

One thing that Gemayel, Aoun and Geagea agree on, despite their many disagreements, is the need to change the reality that has been imposed on Christian voters for two decades and three election cycles. This reality allowed Christian MPs to be elected to parliament through votes from Muslims. In the 2005 and 2009 elections, after the withdrawal of the Syrian army from Lebanon, Christian blocs still owed the election of some of their MPs to the support of their allies and Muslim voters.

Just as Bkerke rejected the 1992 electoral law, it is rejecting today the 2008 electoral law, but it is not doing so in a passive way. Nevertheless, it has failed in bringing Christian parties together to agree on an alternative.

Three, the real positions of the Sunni and Shia allies of the Christian parties remain ambiguous and unclear. They have only offered timid signs and signals.

The Future Movement, the Sunni ally of the March 14 Christian forces, says that they support the 50 district draft law proposed by the Phalange Party and the LF while maintaining their reservations about dividing Beirut into seven districts.

The Shia parties, Hezbollah and the Amal Movement, and their Christian ally, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), support the government draft election law. Hezbollah and Amal also say they support the other draft law adopted by the Change and Reform bloc headed by FPM leader, Aoun, which was put forth by the Orthodox Gathering. Both draft laws adopt a system of proportional representation.

What the Sunni and Shia parties have in common is the fact that they are relying on their Christian adversaries to undermine the proposals of their Christian allies. In other words, Aoun’s rejection will defeat the LF proposal and Aoun’s proposal will be defeated by his Christian adversaries’ rejection.

This way, the Sunni and Shia parties will avoid taking a negative position on draft laws that are subject to vigorous disagreement between the two opposing Christian sides. Therefore, it won’t appear as though they are trying to hold on to their share of Christian MPs in their Sunni and Shia parliamentary blocs. That was the case during the Syrian presence in Lebanon and even in the 2005 and 2009 elections after the Syrian withdrawal.

The Sunni and Shia positions therefore are more of a “swindle” than a source of support for their allies’ proposals. The Christian leaders realize that despite the importance of their agreement on an alternative law, the real power lies elsewhere. There will be no electoral law if it does not gain the approval of the Sunni and Shia parties who manage the internal balance of power, political balance and stability.

The electoral law therefore is also subject to Lebanese-style consensus politics that require the agreement of the two sides directly involved in finding a formula that ensures the internal balance necessary to have elections regardless of who wins and gets a parliamentary majority. There will be no electoral law that excludes the Shia and Sunni parties or forces them to accept it.

Fourth, the need for Christian parties to take a unified position regarding the electoral law stems from the fact that the other two sides are internally unified. The assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri unified the Sunnis and the withdrawal of the Syrian army from Lebanon unified the Shia around Hezbollah as the real guarantor of their position, regional role and protector of the interests of their ally in Damascus.

Part of the dilemma that the Christian parties face is their need to take their allies’ needs into consideration. Neither Gemayel nor Geagea – despite what the latter said few days ago – can accept an electoral law based on proportional representation if former prime minister Saad Hariri rejects it. Also, Aoun can not abandon the government draft electoral law as long as his Shia allies, who are against the idea of reducing the size of electoral districts, insist on it.

Five, based on the proposals they are making, the Christian parties are dealing with the electoral law with a seven month perspective, which is when the 2013 election ends. Each side is trying to get the largest share of parliamentary seats. The elections are being approached as part of the open confrontation between the March 8 and March 14 forces and between their contradictory and incompatible positions and their ability to get a parliamentary majority.

None of the three Christian leaders have a serious political project in the way they provoke their adversaries with the election law. Neither Aoun nor Geagea will become president in the 2014 presidential elections. And neither one of them – irrespective of the size of their parliamentary blocs – is capable of taking the country from one strategy to another or from one regional alliance to another even if he and his allies get a parliamentary majority.

When the March 14 forces, based on their parliamentary majority after the 2005 elections, tried to monopolize control over national political choices, they took the country towards instability and put it on the edge of the abyss. And when March 8 forces gained the parliamentary majority by tipping the local balance of power, they too were unable to take Lebanon to a different set of political choices.

Nicolas Nassif is a political analyst at Al-Akhbar.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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