Although events in neighbouring Syria will determine whether parliamentary elections will be held in Lebanon in 2013, and while nascent civil society movements clamour for real change by insisting that 128 secularised candidates run for office, chances are excellent that neither will occur.
Simply stated, and notwithstanding grandiose calls for proportional representation, few members of the current parliament — who will need to vote for the required transformations — will bother. Under the circumstances, will the Lebanese exercise this basic right, and will the country’s democratising features improve?
In early May, that is before the most recent clashes in Tripoli, Interior Minister Marwan Charbel — who represents Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) leader MP Michel Aoun in the cabinet — declared his fears that the 2013 elections might be disrupted or even cancelled as a direct result of frequent security breaches.
Charbel expressed his concerns that “bombings and assassinations might lead to the cancellation,” adding that the much discussed new electoral law, which would be based on proportional representation (nisbiyyah), was unlikely to see the light of day.
Inasmuch as various MPs would be at a disadvantage under the scheme, and because proportional representation would circumvent a key Ta’if Accord measure — parity between Christians and Muslims that gives Lebanon its distinction within the Arab world — few have the political stomach to launch an all-out battle.
To be sure, Aoun and his allies are pushing for the proposed new law, while Progressive Socialist Party leader MP Walid Jumblatt and the Future Movement headed by former PM Sa’ad Hariri, reject it.
Jumblatt and Hariri, among others, have called for the adoption of the 2009 electoral law, which was itself based on the 1960 winner take all edict, a defective method by all accounts.
Why then do the Lebanese display such reticence to embark on a fresh democratising mechanism?
Truth be told, an electoral system that favours proportional representation would undermine the current sectarian structure governing Lebanon that, for all practical purposes, cannot change by fiat.
Indeed, those benefiting from existing mechanisms cannot, at least logically, vote for any procedure that would weaken political parties, movements and coalitions. Needless to say that those with vested interests in perpetuating their hold on the body politic will not agree to such reforms, because fundamental changes will limit, or even destroy, their political and financial empires.
Yet, and assuming that by some miracle proportional representation was adopted, who would benefit and who would suffer from such reforms?
For starters, Prime Minister Najeeb Mikati and Finance Minister Mohammad Safadi, both of whom hail from long-neglected Tripoli, stand a much better chance of increasing the size of their legislative blocs vis-à-vis Hariri, the country’s nominal Sunni leader. Yet, although Hariri’s prolonged absence from the country weakens him politically, a cancellation of the elections might help him fight future battles when circumstances change.
Hezbollah might also gain seats under such a scheme, by running anti-Mustaqbal candidates in districts where the latter won by narrow margins in 2009.
Interestingly, Aoun’s bloc and several smaller Christian parties might lose, since the vast majority barely made it in 2009, sliding in through the narrowest margins. Given that most won by few votes, and in light of the current polarisation, there was a distinct danger that proportional representation could see the FPM lose more than they bargained for.
To be sure, Aoun and his allies could pick up a few posts in Beirut and elsewhere, although electors in the capital tend to be far less susceptible to ideological proclivities especially when compared with die-hard electors elsewhere. What literally shocks is to actually find intelligent and highly educated professionals living in total denial about many politicians whose disregard for law and order is only surpassed by empty promises to their “followers.”
Ordinary people who actually believe elite rhetoric and, even worse, stand ready to risk their lives even if few realise how futile such commitments are. Like their Syrian brethren, many shout “Bil-Ruh, Bil-Dam, Nafdiq Ya …” [with our souls and our blood, we serve you oh …], which is a good illustration of master-slave relationships.
Of course, the biggest loser will be Jumblatt who, under the circumstances, will no longer be the sole voice of the Druze community.
Regrettably, Lebanon’s feudal institutions enjoy power because citizens from all political persuasions, regions and all religious denominations, accept the current set-up. Most have long concluded that proportional representation, and therefore real democracy, cannot apply to their country because of the overall fear that demographic and confessional imbalances will transform the country from one that looks out to one that will espouse far narrower models.
Even those who might accept proportional representation at a future date wish to see a clear linkage made with the far more significant step to allow expatriate Lebanese to vote from abroad. That, many believe, might even the odds.
In the event, and because of the current doldrums in Syria, chances are excellent that no new law will be ushered in. The Lebanese will therefore just have to wait for a felicitous settlement in Syria. It might be a long wait, which is why few ought to anticipate parliamentary elections in 2013.
— Dr Joseph A. Kechichian is the author of the forthcoming ‘Legal and Political Reforms in Saudi Arabia’ (Routledge, 2012).