Lebanon has just managed to avoid yet another constitutional crisis after parliament and cabinet approved a new electoral law. Most political parties had agreed that they could not elect a new parliament using the old sectarian-based law, that dates back to 1960. But they could not also agree on what should go into the new law. As a result, they voted for a minimum change that will introduce proportional representation into a new arrangement of 15 electoral districts across the country and allow overseas Lebanese to vote. But MPs refused to back reforms that were suggested previously, such as including a quota for women, allowing Lebanese soldiers to vote and lowering the voting age from 21 to 18. The current parliament will continue until next May to allow preparation for the voting to take place.
Under Lebanon’s institutionalised confessional constitution, the parliament’s 128 seats are split equally between Christians and Muslims under the Taif Agreement, which ended the 1975-1990 civil war. President Michel Aoun had argued that the old system gave Muslims too much say over which Christians are elected, and their critics said that the system had encouraged political alliances across sectarian lines.
The country has always been plagued by sectarian divisions, with the post-civil war accord being harmed by the Syrian civil wars and Iranian manipulation that backs the Shiite militia Hezbollah and associated political parties. The parliament has been under pressure to reform itself for years, but Lebanese activists allege that politicians have been using the regional upheaval since 2011 as yet another excuse to dodge new elections.
It has been a national tragedy that Lebanon had to struggle without an effective government for many years in a stand-off between Hezbollah and the rest. Hezbollah is too large to be ignored in any settlement, but too small to build a government on its own, so a stalemate was inevitable. This created the serious possibility that Lebanon would get dragged into the fighting as Iran had ordered Hezbollah to intervene in the Syrian war on the side of the then-embattled president Bashar Al Assad.
However, a second issue quickly followed as more than one million Syrian refugees flooded into Lebanon, desperate for housing but also carrying their civil war alliances with them. To navigate through these existential issues, Lebanon needs a working president, prime minister and parliament with mandate to act. Last week’s modest development was a step in the right direction.