2005 marked a turning point year for Lebanon. For the first time in decades, the Lebanese went to the polls to elect 128 parliamentarians without direct Syrian intimidation. Though it was an election free from outside interference, it was not fair and just. Civil society deployed tremendous efforts and a national commission, dubbed the Boutros Commission, was formed to help advance structural reforms to transform the electoral system into one that reflected the popular will. Though it was an innovative initiative that received proposals from over 100 civil society actors and reached a broad-based consensus on major reform points, the role of the commission was limited to recommending reform measures, leaving the government with the choice of either adopting or rejecting those reforms. Unfortunately, major reforms hit a dead end in 2008 with the political paralysis that followed the 2006 Hizballah-Israel war. Similarly today, political bickering and spillovers from the Syrian revolution pose two potential factors that could scuttle the opportunity for reform in the 2013 general election.
Whether the electoral system in Lebanon is truly on the path of gradual and steady improvements remains to be seen in the coming months, given that the cabinet on Tuesday passed the newest electoral draft law and will be sending it to parliament for approval amid contention. But beneath the surface lies more intricate factors. Experience over the past few years has shown that social and economic concerns have presented two major constraints on the path to reforming the electoral law due to the government's prioritization of these pressing issues.
More importantly, stakeholders are concerned that politicians from both sides of the political spectrum will collaborate to torpedo the draft law altogether, turning it into a déjà vu scenario of 2005 in which a majority of the members of the opposing March 14th and March 8th groups joined forces to move forward with the same Syrian-designed system in an unprecedented act of deception and trickery.
It is from this perspective that savvy observers of Lebanon’s politics perceive the current state of affairs and continue to harbor deep concerns as to whether meaningful reforms can be secured before reaching the deadline of the 2013 general election. Reinforcing their concern, little work has been done and few resources have been allocated to set up an effective mechanism to monitor and ensure compliance with overly complicated and demanding issues such as campaign finance, media regulations, and out-of-country voting.
To make matters worse, the local mainstream media does not help much in raising awareness of electoral reforms in Lebanon. To the average Lebanese, the issue of reform is mostly related to the question of electoral districting, and not the equally important reform points of establishing an independent electoral commission and putting in place an effective mechanism to preventing vote-buying and limiting the influence of large patronage networks.
While a re-partitioning of Lebanon into an increased number of mono-confessional districts is currently the talk of the town, little attention has been given to other reforms. Instead, people are engaged in a byzantine discussion of how many of the districts one administrative unit should be divided into to allow fair political representation for regional and religious groups. Despite the fact that the government passed a draft law based on proportional representation, its remodeling of the electoral districts has attracted quite a few criticisms from the March 14 coalition. It is still unknown if an agreement could be reached to allow for smaller electoral districts, in which candidates of the same religion can compete for votes more effectively and serve as representatives for their constituents more fairly.
In 2009, reforms efforts were almost entirely focused on repartitioning Lebanon into smaller homogenous electoral districts to help the Christians restore their political representation, which was lost decades ago due to excessive gerrymandering by the Syrian occupiers and their Lebanese cronies. Although they were able to recuperate 21 of the 38 seats that fall in Muslim-majority districts, Christian leaders still seem poised to push forward for smaller districts, without taking a firm and unique stand on the comparably more alluring system of proportional representation.
Proportional representation, which would supplant the majoritarian "first-past-the-post" (FPTP) ballot system, could provide considerable benefits. Resounding particularly among secular and youth circles, advocates of such a system have recently been vocal in highlighting a number of points critical to sparking democratic spillovers. First and most importantly, while narrowing districts would reinforce the logic of sectarian politics in Lebanon, proportional representation is seen to foment the contrary: the emergence of nontraditional groups to the political sphere, allowing secular young voices to be represented without feeling the need to join large coalitions. Second, proportional representation could ease political polarization between March 8th and March 14th by bringing into parliament a third choice, one that is more rational, moderate, and politically neutral.
Beyond this, there are a number of reform measures that are considered imperative to reaching a transparent electoral process. These measures include adopting a universal uniform ballot, enabling the Lebanese to vote near their place of residence, and counting the vote at the regional rather than the local level. All three of these reforms are critical to ensuring that the secrecy of voting is maintained and that powerful candidates with large patronage networks are unable to monitor and trace voters’ behavior.
Without a doubt, the issue of political reform in Lebanon is subject to marketing and sectarian political bargaining. Lebanese civil society as well as international and multilateral actors should be poised to provide economic aid and technical assistance to the Lebanese government, contingent upon progress on the electoral front.
Rudy Sassine is an independent freelance journalist based in Beirut.