Matt Nash

Looks like it’s back to the past for voters

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.

  • Beiruti

    @Majd. I live in the US. We have elections all the time where one party wins and the other loses by a margin of 51-49%. Its called representative democracy. Winners win and losers lose. 49? is a loss. It is coming in 2nd in a two man race. It happens every 2 years here in the States and as you can see, we are not at civil war over it. So please, proportionality is an electoral concept used to give minorities more voice and so it is a dimunition of the idea of majorarian democracy. In most places. In Lebanon, it would work to increase beyond its numbers in the population deputies elected by Hezbollah. This rewards a party that does not allow competive parties in its district. So in Lebanon, such a plan would work against a more representative outcome. Think about it.

    May 25, 2012

  • ali daoud

    any electoral system which is not based on Proportionality is unfair, and any elctoral system which is based on the majority rule is unfair no matter how big or small the electoral district is. it`s not fair for the party who takes 49% of the votes to loose everything, such system will surely lead to civil wars every while. The cure of Lebanon`s major political and sectarian illness is to have big alliances of various parties who challenge each other on the Nation`s level following the proportionality rule, let`s have two or three major alliances who compete al over Lebanon and let every party gets the percentage of seats according to its percentage of votes, and sure the seats will be divided between Muslims and Christians 50/50. any other suggestion is an escape from the real cure of our sick sectarian system, and it is the proportionality that permits small parties such as the Communist or The salafists or Ahmad el Assad`s party to have their fair share in the Parliament.who dares?

    May 24, 2012

  • Beiruti

    Single member districts are the most representative of the people. No doubt. Moving to this system would break the power of the ruling class and their lists system which may be the only solution to the craven political situation in Lebanon. However, this single member district system must be tempered with the establishment of a Lebanese Senate as provided in the Taif amendments to the Lebanese Constitution. The Lebanese Senate should become the vessel for the 50-50 Christian to Moslem forumula of Taif with the Chamber of Deputies being more reflective of the demographics of the country. A bill would have to win approval of both the Chamber and the Senate in the same form to become a law. These changes must be comprehensive and simultaneous.

    May 24, 2012