Update: Lebanon Discusses Adopting Proportional Representation

by Yasmeen Gholmieh, Arab Spring Series // Published August 22, 2011

The Arab Spring movement has influenced Lebanon differently than many of its neighbors. Unlike nations like Syria and Yemen, there aren't street protests. Rather, the turmoil in the country is within the Parliament, not the people themselves. In a country that has relied on winner-take-all elections, the key pro-democracy movement is for adopting a proportional representation voting system to be used in the next parliamentary elections in 2013.

President Michel Sleiman and Prime Minister Najib Mikati agree that the best solution to Lebanon's extremely divisive political system is to put in place proportional voting. Interior Minister Marwan Charbel put together a committee for electoral reform. He affirms that a new law will be presented to Parliament by late September. Others backing the proposal include Speaker Nabih Berri, Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun, the Lebanese Forces lead by Samir Geagea, the Marada Movement lead by Suleiman Frangieh and the Kataeb Party lead by Amine Gemayel.

But opponents of reform have emerged. Walid Jumblatt, Progressive Socialist Party leader and Lebanon's most prominent Druze political figure, has made a clear stance against the idea, saying that "it is better to postpone discussing proportional representation and to keep the current situation to preserve diversity and plurality."

Grounded in the fact that Lebanon's democracy today is based on quotas rather than voter preferences, Jumblatt's argument goes against what proportional representation stands for. As the current electoral process works today, each party is guaranteed a set number of seats in each district. The number of seats in Parliament is divided equally between Christians and Muslims (50:50). Within each block, each religious sect holds a set number of seats.

Not only does the unchangeable number of seats assume falsely that no religious sect is going to see its population grow disproportionately than other parties, but it also assumes that there will be enough people in each district to support the candidates of each religious sect. By guaranteeing a number of seats for each political party based on each religious sect, diversity is maintained at the expense of proportional representation based on voter preferences.

Instead of having a limited number of seats for each religious sect, proportional voting would allow the people of Lebanon to choose the candidates they feel are stronger based on their political views, not on religious beliefs. Elected officials will therefore be able to better represent citizens based on what the people have voted on Election Day, not on a pre-established archaic law that only promotes national divisions. Not only will proportional voting be better able to represent citizens but it promises to promote higher voter turnout.  

Despite multiple public endorsements for the impending law, many are still skeptical about the reform being passed due to political parties not willing to give up their guaranteed seats. Media adviser to Speaker Nabih Berri, Ali Hamdan told the Daily Star that "the [adoption of proportional representation] requires a national political will ... so far there is [only] semiunanimity over the adoption of proportional representation."

Although the electoral committee reform is facing high opposition, it should rally as much support as possible before the end of September. Mobilizing citizens about the cause will help pressure politicians to passing the new electoral law on proportional representation in time for the Parliamentary elections of 2013.