Ohio State University

A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing: Lebanon’s New Electoral Law Entrenches the Power of Political Elites under the Guise of Reform by Jackson Schumacher @ The Ohio State University

Lebanon is set to have its first parliamentary election in 9 years this May and with the new elections will come new electoral laws. The passage of the new electoral law was no small task and the 9 year gap between elections that normally happen every 4 years was, in part, due to protracted negotiations on the subject. In fact, over 20 drafts were submitted by various parties in Lebanon until the current electoral laws could be agreed on. The electoral laws were one of many issues that have caused intense gridlock in the Lebanese parliament and have led to parliament voting to extend its own tenure 3 times. The new electoral laws have been heralded by the ruling parties as major improvements in representation for the Lebanese people. However, despite the long wait, the Lebanese may need to wait longer for a real fix for their electoral woes. The new laws are likely going to entrench longstanding electoral problems in Lebanon and open the door for political elites to consolidate power along sectarian lines.

The electoral system in Lebanon has a complicated history. The territory that is now Lebanon was carved out by western powers hundreds of years ago with little to no concern for cultural, ethnic or religious divide. This left Lebanon, when it finally gained its independence after WWII, significantly more religiously heterogeneous than most of its neighbors. To prevent one religion from gaining overwhelming political power over the others, as has happened in many countries in the region, Lebanon adopted a constitution that mandated a certain number of elected governmental positions for each religious sect. Problematically, the numbers of seats allocated were based on census data collected in the 1940’s and were not updated again until the end of the Lebanese civil war in 1989. Since then, seats were evenly distributed between Christian and Muslim/Druze sects in district-scale winner-take-all elections.

The issue with this system is that it was dominated by political elites. Debate was relegated to sectarian divides rather than issue based politics. Coalitions between Christian and Muslim parties formed and since the winning party took all the seats, a vote for a party that didn’t include your specific sect was too risky regardless of their stance on issues. In this environment, accountability was lost and anti-democratic practices such as parliamentary seat inheritance and vote buying became commonplace.

The new system, on the surface, seems to combat these problems. It attempts to proportionally distribute seats based on vote percentage which, in theory, makes it less risky to vote based on issues or for less mainstream candidates. However, it is important to remember that the new laws were drafted by the current political elites who have been in power 5 years longer than their original mandate and who assuredly want to remain in power.

Candidates are grouped into party tickets. A voter must vote for their preferred ticket and within that ticket their preferred candidate. Tickets get a certain number of seats based on percentage of the vote and the seats are filled by the most popular candidates within a ticket. The issue is that voting districts are divided into two sub district’s and the seats a ticket fills for a major district are filled based on who has a higher percentage of votes within a minor district. A candidate in a sub district of 10,000 people who gained 50% of the vote (5000 votes) would get a seat in the major district before a candidate in the sister sub district of 40,000 people who gained 25% of the vote (10,000 votes) even though the latter candidate represents more people.

If this seems convoluted, that is because it is. Strange situations like this seem to benefit the specific electoral situations of current, prominent government officials who are seeking reelection this year. Long term, as long as this law is in place, the Lebanese will have to vote in elections whose outcomes don’t truly reflect vote outcomes proportionally.

Furthermore, each citizen still only gets to vote for 1 ticket. A ticket will consist of candidates from a single party and since parties are essentially never secular in Lebanon a vote based on issues could be a vote against your religious sect which is still a dangerous gamble even if seats are distributed proportionally. In a system where votes are dictated by religious affiliation, more extremist groups win out because their religious messages tend to be more salient to the voter. In addition, none of these laws change the fact that seats are distributed based on religion but not proportionally to any current census data.

Finally, the districts themselves have been mapped such that they are split in the most sectarian way in Lebanon’s history. This create homogeneous voter pools in which it is extremely easy for one party to dominate for years without serious contest. For example, in a predominately Shi’ite voter blocks, Hezbollah (whose military is dominant in Lebanese security matters) is likely to get every Shi’ite seat (and thus almost every seat) in their district because it would be very dangerous for a Shi’ite politician to run against Hezbollah given their history of violence and political intimidation. Some reporters have noted this frees Hezbollah to expand its influence to other districts and religious sects by inserting Hezbollah backed candidates into them.

Another troubling component to Lebanon’s election is the degree of outside influences on politicians. Many parties in Lebanon are directly backed by foreign countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia. These autocratic nations will not be pushing democratic agendas in Lebanon so electoral laws written by politicians who are supported by them need to be viewed with skepticism. Most outside influences on Lebanon are extremely sectarian. For example, Saudi Arabia and Iran, generally support fundamentalist Sunni and Shi’ite doctrines respectively. Given Lebanon’s history of religious violence, the political gridlock and the now religiously homogeneous voting districts, these outside influences could be very damaging.

What this all amounts to a system primed to allow and elite political class to stay in power with next to no accountability whilst masquerading as electoral reformers. Outside influences, unfair districts, corruption and polarization along sectarian lines are all factors that are used by independent watchdogs such as the V-DEM institute to assess risk for democratic erosion. Lebanon may not be at risk for the rise of a stealth autocrat but it is certainly in danger of the rise of stealth oligarchs.

Despite all this, there is still hope for Lebanon. Nine years of political gridlock and failures to provide basic government services like electricity and trash pickup have frustrated the Lebanese public. The last time the Lebanese government has been under this much pressure from its constituency was in the early-mid 2000’s when Syria was running Lebanon’s government. Hopefully the Lebanese public does not settle for these new electoral laws because acceptance of the new law would pave the way for years of domination by outside powers and a small, elite political class.

Photo from: http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Lebanon-News/2017/Jun-16/409865-parliament-set-to-approve-lebanons-new-vote-law.ashx

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