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Sami Atallah, LCPS executive director

April 2017
Along What Lines Are Lebanon’s Political Elite Divided?

Eight years on and Lebanon still does not have an electoral law. Despite the many draft proposals and meetings by the Council of Ministers (COM) and parliamentary sub-committees, political parties appear more likely to either hold elections according to the so-called 1960 law or illegally extend their mandates than pass a new electoral law. Granted, a new electoral law would determine who has the power to nominate a prime minister, form a new government, issue a vote of confidence and oversee government’s performance, and initiate or approve pieces of legislation. But, the failure of political elites to pass a new electoral law after more than eight years of talking about it is due to a deeper problem that dates back to the Taef agreement.
From the 1990s until 2005, the electoral law was the prerogative of the Syrian regime and was designed to elect MPs who were subservient to the Syrian leadership and punish or tame those who were considered to be opponents. Since the departure of Syrian forces in 2005, political parties have proven unable to resolve conflicts among themselves. This state of affairs was exacerbated by having more political parties come into the fold as rents declined; reducing those monetary flows that served to smooth the process of wheeling and dealing among elites. For almost ten years Lebanon’s governments have barely been able to govern and not coincidentally, a national budget has not been approved since then.
The parliamentary election of 2009 should be viewed as an anomaly, as it took place following years of paralysis that resulted in violence in May 2008 and the intervention of Qatar to bring Lebanon’s house in order. While this agreement was supposed to give Lebanon some normalcy as political parties agreed on a range of decisions including an electoral law, a president, a prime minister, and a government, it did not last long.
Paralysis was not confined to the executive branch as the parliament did not fare much better. Despite the many bills that were passed from 2009 to 2017, only a fraction of them required legislative effort and directly addressed people’s needs and concerns. Having failed to also elect a president after forty-five parliamentary sessions exclusively convened for that purpose and following a presidential vacuum that lasted for thirty months, the election of Michel Aoun in October 2016 initially signaled a change of alignment by political actors.
Although this may be interpreted as a new beginning on account of the fact that the new government formed under the premiership of Saad Hariri passed key decisions including decrees that were stuck in the COM for years, this new alignment quickly ran out of steam. The most glaring failure of this government is its inability to pass a new electoral law. While some blame the absence of the law on regional developments, other parties resorted increasingly to sectarian discourse to maintain power.
Political parties hold a variety of views on what laws should govern the election. In fact, LCPS interviewed 65 out of the 128 MPs who accepted to see us and asked which electoral law they favor most. Out of the seven options, 29% of MPs selected the “other”, reflecting the lack of consensus on an electoral law. This was followed by 23% of MPs who argue in favor of Lebanon being one district under proportional representation [PR] without a sectarian quota, 14% who support the Fouad Boutros draft law (hybrid of small and large districts and between PR and majoritarian system), another 14% who are calling for small districts with a majoritarian system, 9% who favor the Orthodox law, 6% that are behind the 1960 law (majoritarian system at the qada level), and 6% who favor single-member districts.
Looking more closely at the data, we observe not-so-surprising differences by blocs. While the Future Movement bloc supports the Fouad Boutros draft law, the Change and Reform and the Lebanese Forces express little support for it, while the other blocs do not support it at all. The Lebanon as one district proposal finds support among the Loyalty to the Resistance, Development and Liberation, and Change and Reform blocs but no support by others.
More surprising are three other observations. First, there are more differences within blocs than across blocs. Take for instance the Future MP bloc, which is the largest bloc in the Lebanese Parliament. Its MPs selected five different options with ten MPs opting for “other” options, eight favoring the “Fouad Boutros law”, and five selecting small districts (smaller than qada) with a majoritarian system leading the way. This is also the case for the Change and Reform bloc, the second largest bloc. Three of its interviewed MPs are in favor of the Orthodox law, another three are for small districts with a majoritarian system, two are for “Lebanon as one district”, two are for “others”, and one is for the Fouad Boutros Law. This dynamic also played out in the case of other blocs.
Given the confessional composition of the parliament, one would think that MPs of the same sect will favor similar policy options as is often portrayed in the media. Quite simply, this appears not to be the case either. For instance, policy preferences of seventeen Maronite MPs are scattered over six options: Three for the Orthodox Law, one for Lebanon as one district, four for smaller districts with a majoritarian system, two for the Fouad Boutros draft law, five for single-member districts, and two for others. Sunni MPs have their preferences dispersed over five options: Two are for the current law, four are for Lebanon as one district, seven are for the Fouad Boutros draft law, one is for small districts with majoritarian system, and six are for other options. Shia MPs seem to be more in agreement as their preferences are confined to three options but this could be due to the fact that we were only able to meet with ten out of the twenty seven Shia MPs, which is a lower ratio than for the other sects.
The third observation is the extent to which the sixty-five interviewed MPs support other reform elements, with 92% supporting lowering the voting age, 86% for preprinted ballots, 98% in favor of regulating advertisement and media campaigns, and 99% for capping campaign financing. However, their alleged support stops short of backing a women’s quota. Only 55% are in favor of it. While Sunnis and Greek Orthodox MPs are supportive, Shia and Maronite MPs are least supportive of a women’s quota. As for blocs, the Lebanese Forces and others are in favor of a women’s quota, but the Loyalty to the Resistance and the Democratic Gathering are not in favor it, with the remaining blocs falling in between the two poles. 

What should all this signal? It seems the electoral law is indicative of the fact that cleavages in Lebanon run along a number of lines, be they sectarian, political, regional, or others. While political blocs hold different positions, there are splits within blocs that are often not-so-apparent. While political parties resort to sectarian discourse to air their anger, there seems be little coherence within confessional groups. Finally, while most MPs ostensibly support the aforementioned electoral reforms, the question remains: To what extent are they genuine in their convictions and are they willing to act on them by passing meaningful legislation?

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