It’s looking more and more like polling stations for next year’s parliamentary elections will double as time machines—whisking voters back to 1960. The political elite who benefit most from the decades-old electoral law have been talking a lot about reforming it, but the chances they’ll actually do anything are—as usual—slim to zilch.
The standard March 8-March 14 divide is one obstacle to reform, complicated by fractures within March 14 and the coalition’s need to woo free-agent Walid Jumblatt as an electoral ally.
For years now the 1960 law has been an object of scorn. As slightly amended for the 2009 elections, it carved Lebanon into 26 electoral districts with the 128 parliament seats divided among them. Prior to the vote, political allies struck backroom deals to compile lists of candidates for each district. While a few brave souls ran independently, the vast majority of voters chose between two lists broadly representing the country’s March madness political schism.
When the time came for counting ballots, the list with the most votes in each district saw all of its candidates elected to parliament. This so-called “winner-take-all” formulation is one of the main problems civil society reformers have with the 1960 law. It’s quite unfair for a list supported by 49 percent of a district to get nary a seat, they argue.
What the reformers want is proportional representation—i.e. if the vote in a district with eight seats is split 50-50, each list gets four candidates elected. Amal, the Free Patriotic Movement and, most recently, Hezbollah support this idea, as do President Michel Sleiman and Interior Minister Marwan Charbel. (It is unclear if they all agree on an exact electoral districting map, however.)
Jumblatt, who blatantly admits it will shrink his share of loyal MPs, is against proportional representation. Officially, Future Movement leader Saad Hariri says he’s against the reform because Hezbollah’s arsenal would prevent true competition in areas where the party is strong by scaring off non-party-approved candidates. A more cynical reading sees Hariri’s objection as a step in his courtship dance with Jumblatt.
Earlier this month, the Druze “kingmaker” said he’s behind the idea of a single-member electoral district—which would mean cutting the country into 128 units and effectively killing the list system. This notion was first floated back in 2004, the brainchild of Lebanese National Bloc leader Carlos Eddé.
In an interview with NOW, Eddé explained that he thinks single-member districts would make MPs more accountable to voters and make it easier for independent candidates to win election. Conversely, Rony Assad from the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections—a staunch backer of proportional representation—opined that single-member districts are easier for a candidate to buy.
Eddé’s proposal would also allow for run-off elections (if no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two most popular would face off two weeks after the general election). However, Eddé said he is against changing a provision of the 1960 law seen as particularly backwards—namely that voters must travel to the district their family is historically from to cast a ballot instead of voting where they currently live.
Meanwhile, the two largest Christian parties in the March 14 coalition have recently dodged questions on what electoral law they support. Both Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea and Kataeb Party President Amin Gemayel spoke with Al-Akhbar this month and, when asked about electoral reform, gave general answers about consulting with allies to find the best piece of legislation.
Geagea went further than Gemayel, however, by adamantly rejecting the 1960 law. That seemingly puts him at odds with Jumblatt—and, possibly, Hariri, who also has not yet given a clear statement about the law he supports. In mid-May, top Jumblatt ally Ghazi Aridi described the law used in 2009 as one “we can go with.”
Privately, many involved in discussions on the elections have told NOW they sincerely doubt there will be any major changes to the old law. There is some hope that a few fringe—but arguably very important—reforms may pass (such as lowering the voting age to 18 from 21, letting expats vote from abroad and producing pre-printed ballots), but it looks likely that next year, voters will be doing the time warp again.