Testing the Waters of Electoral Reform

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One of the electoral law proposals was brought forward by Interior Minister Marwan Charbel. (Photo: Haitham Moussawi)

By: Nicolas Nassif

Published Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The election law is back at the forefront of political debates in Lebanon. There does not seem to be a rush to address the matter before the end of this month. But that is time enough for the players concerned to try to outmaneuver each other over the drawing up of electoral districts, before they fall back – almost all of them – on the law that has been used since 2009: the election law that was agreed to at Doha the previous year.

This is the only part of the Doha Agreement still intact. All the other provisions of the deal – which tried at the time to spare Lebanon a new civil war after the events of 7 May 2008 – have since lapsed. The consensus president is no longer one, as he was obliged to agree to and work with a government that represents a parliamentary majority led by one camp. The national unity government is no longer in place, as Saad Hariri’s government was toppled and succeeded by Najib Mikati‘s narrow coalition. Also, Hezbollah’s weapons are no longer on the table at the national dialogue, which has not convened since its 11th session in November 2010.

The election law was one of those provisions, but it was only meant to be a temporary expedient. It was supposed to set the stage for the 2009 polls, which would usher everyone into a new political phase. The interim accommodation would be reconsidered in light of the outcome of the elections, with a new government and parliament in place, stability restored, and progress having supposedly been made in the national dialogue about the future of Hezbollah’s arms.

Despite being the last surviving vestige of Doha, almost everyone now claims to oppose the election law. All approved it in 2008 as part of an agreed share out of power in parliament and government between the parties to the deal. It seemed at the time like the right way out for them all. They reached an accommodation on constituencies that was confirmed by the Doha Agreement, and later approved by the national unity government and by the parliament that had been elected in 2005.

President Michel Suleiman wants any new election law in place one year before the next parliamentary elections are due in May 2013.

He reiterated this at a meeting on Saturday at the presidential palace in Baabda which included Mikati, Interior Minister Marwan Charbel, and former Interior Ministers Ziad Baroud and Khalil Hrawi.

Suleiman supports the draft proposal for a new electoral law based on proportional representation (PR), but believes that both the government and opposition camp need to back any new arrangements that are put in place for next year’s polls. After Mikati said he too favored the draft PR law, Suleiman asked that all other parties be sounded out on whether they support or oppose it, or have alternatives of their own to propose.

Suleiman’s position is partly prompted by the overwhelming opposition expressed to him by Christian leaders concerning the 2008 law, which slightly amends the constituencies used in the 1960 election law. He sees PR as a way of enabling all political forces to gain representation in parliament in accordance with their actual support among voters.

This complements the position of the Maronite Church, as conveyed – via a committee of their representatives – to Christian political leaders, who have so far been unable to agree on alternative electoral legislation they could support. While the church avoids expressing a public view on the matter, the fact that it sponsors meetings of the above committee reflects its unhappiness with the 2008 law, which it endorsed at the time as part of a complete political package.

By pushing for the PR legislation to be considered quickly, Suleiman sought to open up a debate about constituency boundaries and the most appropriate electoral system for ensuring that Christian voters are heard. He was also trying to ensure there is balanced representation in the parliament and thus secure a parliament that represents all the major forces in the country.

The president plans to ask the Cabinet at its next meeting to act promptly to put a new election law in place. He will consult with all parties on the proposed PR system to see whether they support or oppose it, and inquire if they have alternatives to suggest.

But PR is not the only idea on the table. The new electoral system proposed by the committee chaired by former minister Fouad Boutros was also discussed at Saturday’s meeting.

So, for the first time in the current debate, a proposal was put forward that would retain the 2008 law but change some of the constituencies. Large districts would be broken up into smaller ones, with between two and five parliamentary seats each.

While most electoral districts are currently this size, some, such as Baalbek and Beirut Second District, return 10 MPs. The Tripoli, Metn, and Chouf constituencies have eight seats each. Supporters of the proposal argue that Christian voters lose out in some large, mixed districts, as Chrisitian MPs end up effectively being chosen by Muslim voters. Dividing them into smaller units – most Christian districts have between two and three seats each – is seen as a remedy.

Discussion of this idea is still in its early stages. None of those present at Saturday’s meeting voiced an opinion on it. It appears to have been raised purely as a pulse-taking exercise.

Nicolas Nassif is a political analyst at Al-Akhbar.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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