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Sami Atallah, LCPS Executive Director

February 2013
The Orthodox Gathering Law: Taking the Country on a Ride to Serve Narrow Interests

Voting every four years for an electoral law few months before the election ensures that most MPs maintain their seats in Parliament. They do so by selecting the constituents who will vote for them largely by carving out electoral districts to their advantage. This is called gerrymandering where politicians choose their voters rather than voters choose their representatives.

With the Greek Orthodox law, gerrymandering has taken a whole new meaning in Lebanon. If approved, politicians would be elected by members of their own sect. That is a Maronite MP will be elected by Maronite voters, Sunni MPs will be elected by Sunni voters, and so forth with Lebanon as one district using the proportional system (PR) as a way to count the votes.

Many have already argued how this system is undemocratic, inequitable, and pushes the Christian community toward further irrelevance. Furthermore, political parties within each sect will compete against each other to defend and preserve the interests of the sect. This will not only consolidate the power of existing parties but it will enhance their sectarian discourse. The PR system which in theory is meant to represent smaller political groups, will do so now by paving the way for extremist sectarian parties.

It is not only parties’ behavior that would change with the Orthodox law but it would also shape the incentives of voters in perverse ways. Regardless of the multiple identities voters have such as their gender, age, region they are from and the income group they belong to, the law would compel them to exercise their sectarian identity to access resources, jobs, and services. Sectarianism becomes the only winning strategy in town. 

If voted through in parliament, the Orthodox law will structure political and social interactions by making sectarian identity politically most salient. This is troubling since the needs, concerns, and preferences of most Lebanese citizens are not determined by their sect. For instance, a recent survey on Lebanon by LCPS for the Arab Barometer project shows that religion and sectarianism do not adequately explain the divisions within the country.  In other words, the needs, attitudes, and preferences of the Maronites do not vary from their Sunni and Shiites counterparts. For example, 50% of Muslims and 48% of Christians thought that the economic situation is the most important challenge facing the country. When asked about their future expectations, 89% of Muslims and 84% of Christians thought that the economic future looks dim.

The convergence of their opinion is not restricted to the economic realm. In fact, both groups are frustrated with how the government is performing. Furthermore, 79% of Muslims and 75% of Christians do not feel that as citizens they are treated equally. On religious issues, 93% of Muslims and 88% of Christians think that religious practices should be separated from politics. All this shows that the challenge and frustration of the Lebanese cut across sectarian differences.

In fact, the division in the country lies elsewhere: It is not religious or sectarian differences that seem to be salient but income, education and gender equality are equally important, if not more. For instance, 51% of low income group think that the economic situation is the most important challenge facing the country compared to only 39% of high income group. When asked about their expectation, 74% of the rich compared to 88% of the poor think that economic future looks dim. Furthermore, only 68% of those with high education degree compared to 80% of those with low level degree feel that they are not treated equally. This is not to suggest that there are no differences by religion or sect but this research highlights that the differences in the country are much more complex and can not be reduced to religion or sect.

So how does rallying for the Orthodox law improve the plight of the Christians whose politicians are most eager to see the law go through? The Christian political parties will now be able to nominate undeservedly all of their 64 MPs (or now 67 members if the parliament members reach a total of 134). This will not improve the political, economic, or social standing of the community since the problems in the country can not be addressed from a sectarian perspective. It will give them though a false sense of security at the expense of taking the whole country to the brink of extremism rather than coexistence. Perhaps the statistic from the survey that best captures the feeling of the Lebanese is that 91% disagree with the statement, “political leaders are concerned with the needs of ordinary citizens.” This is consistent across all sectarian and religious groups.

The Joint Parliamentary committee’s vote of last night in favor of the Orthodox law goes against the trend that we are witnessing in the Arab world. Although the Lebanese political system proved to be malleable against the revolts in the region, it is showing to be bankrupt where religious and sectarian identities are being re-constructed to serve the interests of a very narrow circle of elites.

Moving forward, the Parliament must adopt the National Commission Electoral Law, better known as the Fouad Boutros Law, which combines both PR within a majoritarian system. It introduces PR so as to encourage the representation of small political groups and provide dynamism into the prevailing highly oligarchic system of today. Furthermore, in light of the Orthodox law proposal, there is a serious need to re-consider establishing the Senate as stated in the Taef Agreement. 

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