Lebanon’s parliamentary elections offer promise and risk
The Lebanese people will make it to the polls May 6 after seven long years of electoral delay and political paralysis.
However, the new system of proportional representation that forms the basis of the new elections stands to affect not just how Lebanon’s politicians are elected but also how they govern.
It is hard to overstate the scale of the change next year’s elections will mark. Since gaining independence in 1943, Lebanon has been governed by a majoritarian system. The new system of proportional representation marks a break with the old one and a new direction for Lebanon and, hopefully, its historically dysfunctional parliament.
The difference between the two systems is stark. The majoritarian system is based upon a concept of winner-take-all in which whoever wins more than half the votes is awarded all the seats. However, the proportional system provides voters with competing lists of candidates and parties, allocated through Lebanon’s confessional system, from which they select a candidate.
Predictably, criticism has been quick in coming. Much of it has focused on the increase in the number of wards available and the reduced number of religions living within them. For instance, under the previous system, a Shia seeking election would have had to secure a significant number of votes from the Sunni and Christian population living in the candidate’s ward. True, many wards tended to vote exclusively with one faction. However, to some, the principle of cross-confessional appeal has been reduced.
Civil society has also proven less than impressed with the new system. The absence of any electoral monitor, no quotas for female candidates and ambiguous rules over campaign financing have cast doubt on its legitimacy. “It’s akin to putting new tyres on an old car,” a long-time observer of Lebanese elections told the New Yorker in June. “New tyres are useful when it’s a beloved classic car that speeds along but essentially pointless when the car is a dysfunctional old banger.”
The changes to Lebanon’s electoral law have dominated every aspect of the country’s political life — from the day-to-day operations of parliament, to the recent crises sparked by the shock resignation announcement of Prime Minister Saad Hariri. At that time, Lebanese President Michel Aoun exploited suspicions that Hariri’s allies, the Lebanese Forces, had betrayed him to his Saudi allies to bring him closer to his own axis, thus strengthening his own coalition.
In the short term, this may have been political opportunism. However, its implications have been far-reaching.
For much of the Lebanese political class, Hariri’s resignation proved a watershed moment. Prior to his announcement, much of the discussion focused on efforts to build coalitions among Lebanon’s various political parties. That changed with Hariri’s notional departure and his subsequent alignment with Aoun.
Since that point, discussion has focused almost exclusively on the likelihood of rule by a grand coalition of the big five parties: the Future Movement (headed by Hariri), the Free Patriotic Movement (Aoun’s party), Hezbollah, Amal Movement (headed by Speaker Nabih Berri) and the Progressive Socialist Party (headed by Walid Jumblatt).
If such a grand coalition were achievable — and discipline within it maintainable — it could redraw the entire parliamentary map and mark a volte-face in the distribution of power throughout the country.
The five parties could direct the legislative path of the parliament and would exert significant influence over the executive branch. Critically, the concentration of power in one grand bloc would essentially suck much of the air out of the rooms occupied by Lebanon’s smaller parties.
For some, that kind of pluralism may seem beneficial. However, for Lebanon, choked by endemic corruption and bureaucratic inertia, the delays involved in the rule by such a coalition could prove hard to predict.
Within that bloc, Hezbollah would almost certainly exert the most power but the diversification of interests would also serve as a likely check on the Party of God’s ambitions.
Next year’s elections stand to mark a paradigm shift for the Lebanese political class. A new coalition, one able to pass legislation quickly and effectively, would benefit all. However, a coalition dominated by Hezbollah and the needs of external parties operating to agendas of their own risks not just imperilling Lebanese democracy but potentially Lebanon, too.