The Lebanese seldom trust each other, especially at the political level. And while the country is nominally a democracy, its unique power-sharing formula allocates influence to most communities in a more-or-less harmonious fashion. That’s the theory of the consociationalism mechanism that determines Maronite, Sunni and Shiite authority.
In reality, the parliamentary democratic republic is hostage to itself, and while the 1989 Ta’if Accords, that suspended the 1975-1990 Civil War, removed the built-in majority previously enjoyed by Christians and brought parity between Christians and Muslims, the parliament’s 128 seats are all confessionally distributed.
Because of the country’s demographic make-up, each religious community has an allotted number of seats, even if candidates must receive a plurality of the total vote cast, which includes followers of all confessions. This deliberately-designed system is meant to minimise inter-sectarian competition and maximise cross-confessional cooperation. In other words, and while every candidate is theoretically opposed by a coreligionist [for example, two or more Sunnis competing over a Sunni seat must seek support from outside of their own faith in order to win], the process produces the mother-of all gerrymandering loads.
Over the years, multi-member constituencies emerged, which “secured” most of the 128 seats, irrespective the person who filled the post. In the Baabda-Aley district, for example, the predominantly Druze area of Aley (in the Chouf Mountains) were combined in 2000 with the predominantly Christian area of Baabda, into a single constituency. Likewise, while several seats in the South are allocated to Christians, they have to appeal to a predominantly Shiite electorate, which means the latter chose Christian parliamentarians.
Christian politicians have claimed that constituency boundaries were extensively gerrymandered in the elections of 1992, 1996, 2000, 2005 and 2009. They insisted that past rearrangements favoured the election of Shiites, for example, from Shiite-majority constituencies (where Hezbollah is strong and can prevent the opposition to challenge it), while allocating many Christian members to Muslim-majority districts.
This, in short, is the dilemma and the chief reason why everyone allegedly opposes the current law — first designed in 1960 and modified very slightly in 2008 after the Doha conference that ended a comical chapter in the parliament’s “sale-of-the-decade” deal, which unblocked the self-created political stalemate of the time.
Politicians huffed-and-puffed ever since and continue to vituperate as various proposals are floated to replace the infamous law that served, it is absolutely essential to underscore, every community rather well by preserving confessional privileges.
Among the many proposals under consideration, three stand out: (1) A proportional system in which Lebanon would become a single district that will introduce pluralism; (2) A hybrid system that will include both winner-takes-all and proportionality; and (3) The Orthodox Plan in which one only gets to vote for a member of one’s confession.
In endless debates, mistrustful elite spokespersons displayed their fears that the proportional system will incite a renewed sectarian conflict, whereas the hybrid mechanism, some insisted, will simply rearrange the decks. The so-called Orthodox Plan is rejected out of hand because of its far narrower preferences that will dramatically further divide the already separated.
A few weeks ago, the Minister of the Interior Nouhad Al Mashnouq signed a decree that calls on the electorate to participate in the upcoming polls, as required by Article 66 of the current law, which stipulates sending the decree to the cabinet 90 days ahead of Election Day. The current schedule is for the elections to be held on May 21 [they must be held before June 21 to avoid a void in the current term], based on the 1960 winner-takes-all law, though President Michel Aoun has not, at least so far, issued his final decision on the issue.
Whatever agreement elites eventually settle for will of course require an understanding between the executive and the legislature — yes, the current one will be called upon to determine its own fate — with Speaker Nabih Berri playing a vital role. Berri recently said that adopting the 1960 vote law to govern the upcoming elections was a far better option than extending parliament’s tenure for a third time, and declared: “If we reach April 17 and we have no [new electoral] law at hand, then one of our alternatives is staging the polls based on the valid 1960 law.”
This was no idle chatter and though Berri added that he completely rejected the current law, he nevertheless posted his sharp difference of opinion with Aoun, who has ruled out the 1960 majoritarian system and affirmed that he preferred void. It remains to be determined whether support for a hybrid law that blends provisions of the proportional and majoritarian systems will materialise soon, though what the Lebanese lack is trust in each other. Absent such an ingredient, elections and laws will barely stand as ephemeral spectacles.
Dr Joseph A. Kechichian is the author of the just-published The Attempt to Uproot Sunni Arab Influence: A Geo-Strategic Analysis of the Western, Israeli and Iranian Quest for Domination (Sussex: 2017).