Lebanon: from lowering the voting age to...shifting to proportional representation?

by Eve Robert // Published March 27, 2009
Lebanon's Parliament has recently committed itself to lowering the voting age form 21 to 18. It now falls to the Cabinet to introduce official legislation to change the Constitution. In a context where rampant sectarianism is poisoning Lebanese politics, this minor constitutional change is expected to have a huge impact. Many fear that the youth's natural enthusiasm and fervor will worsen the sectarian mobilization underway in Lebanese society. In addition, one constituency- the Christians- is placed at a numerical disadvantage by this reform.

The need for a new voting system In other words, it is time – again- for Lebanese to look for long term solutions to reverse the sectarian deterioration of the political process in their country. The coalition agreement reached at Doha last may, which allowed for a national unity government (including both the Hezbollah and Saad Hariri's movement), has been necessary to avoid a dramatic parting of the country and further sectarian violence. Nevertheless, a deeper, structural set of solutions is needed more than ever, as Brooking's scholar Hady Amr recently argued.

And guess what? Reform of the electoral law, with a view towards adopting a new electoral system based on proportional representation, is increasingly seen as the most appropriate, relevant and indispensable reform able to deal with these problems. A growing number of civil society groups are now calling for the introduction of PR – notably the Civil Center for National Initiative, which recently sent a letter to President Sleiman urging him to ask Parliament for a review of the electoral law.

How the current system works Under the current electoral law, Lebanon has a one-of-a-kind "communitarian" (also called "confessional") winner-take-all system. MPs are elected in multi-member constituencies, exquisitely gerrymandered to give each of 18 communities a certain number of seats in Parliament- so as to provide a balance of religious power. The number of seats each sect gets has little relation to its current weight in the population (while the U.S. department estimates Lebanon's population at about 70% Muslim and 23% Christian, the parliament is to this day split equally between Christians and Muslims). In casting their ballots, voters choose as many candidates as there are seats in their district. They are required to cast their ballots in the villages or cities from which their families originated, without regard to current place of residence (this provision is essentially aimed at ensuring that the partisan/religious make-up of each district remains stable overtime). An antiquated, unrepresentative system This system, introduced in the 1960s, is widely considered today to be an out of date, mummified, unfair process, that political parties and media commentators routinely accuse of helping one side while under-representing another. The religious/communitarian feature of this system, in which people vote as Shiite, Sunnis, Druses or Christians, and not as Lebanese citizens, has been widening the gap between religious groups, resulting in harsh sectarian rhetoric and violent tension between communities. Because it excludes, especially in small districts, some of the political forces from representation in parliament, and fails to regulate competition between the two main political alignments, the electoral system can arguably be blamed for the social and political instability in Lebanon, as well as for the lack of trust and confidence in the political institutions (which can itself account for the rising influence of Hezbollah and of its parallel institutions).

Proportional representation, a viable solution for Lebanon problems To put it in a nutshell now, Lebanon is looking for a voting system that would allow fair representation of all groups, while ensuring national cohesion. This system should have all communities participate in the political process proportionally to their social and demographic weightprominence. Well, Proportional representation would can do just that ! It would also allows a more diverse group of political actors to enter Parliament, thereby reducing the influence of the families that have for generations played the role of party bosses.

Additionally, it proportional representation would allow for the emergence of much-needed national political parties- as opposed to the current sectarian groups dominating the political arena. Indeed, parties would have to appeal to a broader base of constituents, so they would have tothereby abandoning sectarian discourse in favor of a national rhetoric that resonates with a wider range of citizens. Also, proportional representation would put an end to vote buying and electoral fraud that to this day is very common in Lebanon. Under the current system, paying for the loyalty of a few thousand voters can be enough to win slim majorities in some districts, therefore affecting the balance of power in parliament. This will no longer be possible under PR, because you will need to buy or falsify tens of thousands of votes to actually affect the results of the election.

Despite all its drawbacks and failures, Lebanese are attached to their voting system, because it guarantees a representation of all communities,- even minority ones,- in Parliament and government and does not allow for the domination of a single religious group. That's a very important feature in such a diverse, multi-religious society. But Lebanon could have the same minority representation guarantees under a PR system, Hady Amr argues. He evokes the example of South Africa after the apartheid, where Proportional representation was implemented along with a provision stating guaranteeing that all minority political parties must have seats in Government.

The ball is in the president's court In a context of increasing political polarization on the country, and ongoing skirmishes between the two broad Lebanese political alignments, Lebanon cannot afford such an unfair, sectarian voting system anymore. But "Lebanese citizens cannot expect members of Parliament to overhaul the country's electoral system, since real reform would represent an obvious threat to entrenched centers of political power", the Daily Star analyses in a recent editorial. "Instead they have been waiting for a national leader who will act on the conviction that the citizens of this nation deserve a genuinely democratic government that represents their interests. Could Sleiman be the leader they have been waiting for?"