Lebanon Discusses Adopting Proportional Representation

by Jais Mehaji, Arab Spring Series // Published July 19, 2011
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Though not undergoing the same kind of upheaval as in Tunisia, Egypt, or Syria, Lebanon has been experiencing some change from the Arab Spring movement. As true in all countries moving toward real elections, adoption of proportional representation voting systems is seen as a key goal.

Embroiled in a messy and bloody civil war for nearly twenty years (1975-1989), Lebanon remains rife with sectarianism, divided along Sunnis, Shiites, Maronite Christians, and a complicated patchwork mosaic of different sects and denominations.

The Lebanese political system has been set up as a consociationalist system along confessional lines– meaning that power is shared between different religious groups, all of which are guaranteed representation no matter what happens in voting. Yet the patent growth of Shiites and Sunnis relative to Christians has instilled a fermentable political climate that has been simmering, ready to implode, and especially vulnerable to external events, whose porous borders make outside shocks reverberate domestically.

Against the backdrop of a very fragile Lebanese sociopolitical landscape, a new electoral law has been mulled – one that advocates for full proportional representation. While information regarding these discussions has been scant, interior minister Marwan Charbel has set a three-month deadline to come up with an electoral law that can be ready for the 2013 parliamentary elections.

While Lebanon is by many accounts a democracy, albeit a delicate one, the current winner-take-all majority-vote system has contributed to the country’s political instability, since it has excluded certain actors from parliamentary representation even as it enshrines religious and ethnic divisions as the unit of representation. A detailed account of Lebanon’s complex election system can be read here. The current electoral system, based on simple majority, makes tribalism, sectarianism, and confessionalism gain salience during elections.

By adopting a proportional voting, groups which feel marginalized – such as the Greek Orthodox or the Druze communities – will be fairly represented, but be able to define their interests with their votes, not their religious identities. This might make Lebanon’s historically fratricidal politics more stable and cohesive, allowing the different Lebanese constituencies to have their share of parliamentary representation, each according to their weight, under a fairer framework, but also encouraging more coalition-building across traditional ethnic lines. Countries whose heterogeneous makeup is often a source of discord can alleviate their ills by allowing for a more fair, proportional representation system, as discussed by political scientists like Arend Lijphrart.

The lack of a proportional system has certainly made the Lebanese party system weak, compared to nations like Israel, as communal ties have transcended political parties. Elections in Lebanon are free, but they are not fair. Though the law has not yet been reified and a new electoral law is only at the level of discussion, Lebanon may well provide important lessons for other Arab nations moving toward democracy – and indeed lessons for the United States.