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Q&A’s for the electoral system in Lebanon

What are some basic characteristics of the electoral system in Lebanon?

Parliamentary elections, which were first held in 1927, are based on an electoral system known as the confessional system, which allocates to each sect a certain number of seats. It was based on an earlier Ottoman system and was carried through to the French mandate. Although forms might have changed over the years, it is based on a simple majority, in which the winning list takes all the seats in an electoral district.

What is the 1960 electoral law?

The 1960 law was drafted after the sectarian conflicts of 1958. Its design, in the absence of a census, called for a parliament to consist of 99 seats, with 54 reserved for Christians (30 Maronite, 11 Greek Orthodox, six Greek Catholic, four Armenian Orthodox, one Armenian Catholic, one Protestant and one minority) and 45 for Muslims (20 Sunni, 19 Shia, six Druze). The 1960 law set the parliamentary term at four years and established the caza, or district, of which there are 26 in Lebanon, as the principal electoral unit. This law dictated the parliamentary elections of 1964, 1968 and 1972.

What did the Taif Agreement of 1989 require in terms of the electoral law?

Because it was based on the vision of  demolishing sectarianism in the ruins of the 15-year civil war, the Taif Agreement called for an electoral law based on the mohafaza, or regions, of which there are six in Lebanon — rather than the much smaller caza, of which there are 26 — in order to encourage cooperation between different sectarian constituencies. Also, it called for evenly dividing the 128 seats in parliament, with half going to the Christians and half to the Muslims. However, the law derived from the Taif was heavily influenced by Syrian hegemony, with the system essentially favoring pro-Syrian politicians, regardless of sect. Four elections took place under the outline of the Taif, namely, 1992, 1996, 2000 and 2005. 

What is the 2000 electoral law?

The law was engineered by Ghazi Kanaan, the chief of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon at the time, to ensure that elections produced outcomes favorable to Syria’s allies. The law is known for its systematic gerrymandering of votes. For example, in North Lebanon, the three predominantly Christian districts of Batroun, Zghorta and Koura were annexed to the Tripoli district, which is predominantly Sunni. As a result, Christian leaders were voted in by Sunnis, who were pro-Syrian, rather than Christians. 

What are some problems with the current electoral system in Lebanon?

Perhaps the biggest problem with the electoral system — be it the1960 law or the 2000 law — is the fact that it is based on a majority system, rather than a proportional one. This means that if there are two contending lists of candidates in one electoral district, and one list wins by a slight margin, the winning list takes all the parliamentary seats allotted to that electorate, while the losing list takes none. This leaves room for vote-buying, since one can sweep elections by achieving a simple majority. Second, the so-called “slating” of candidates into lists is itself suspect, since the lists are not selected on the basis of policy, but rather of securing seats. And lastly, the transparency and respect for people’s free opinions are highly compromised by the current electoral system. A lack of oversight by an independent electoral commission and an absence of campaign spending restrictions allows for widespread vote-rigging.

What was so special about the 2005 parliamentary elections?

It was the first parliamentary election following the withdrawal of Syrian troops. Yet instead of reforming the perverse electoral law altogether, it recycled the 2000law due to the edge it gave politicians in power and was dubbed “free but not fair.” These elections brought about much disappointment among the Lebanese public, and within this context, the government appointed the National Commission to produce a plan for electoral law reform.

What is the 2006 Fouad Boutros Law, and what kinds of reforms did it suggest? Were any of the suggested electoral reforms carried out?

The Fouad Boutros law was the outcome of the National Commission’s deliberations, and it is still seen by many as the perfect law that would bring Lebanese politics to the highest international standards possible. It called for many things, among them a proportional representation system with a mixture of caza-based votes and mohafaza-based votes; setting a 30% minimum quota for women on voting lists; lowering the voting age from 21 to 18; allowing registered Lebanese abroad to vote; giving the option of voting near one’s place of residence; counting of votes at the caza-level rather than the village or neighborhood level, which allows less room for vote-buying and pressure to vote certain lists; establishing an Independent Electoral Commission (IEC); restricting campaign finance; and regulating media coverage during electoral campaigns. None of these reforms have been carried out, although the March 14 alliance is currently looking to implement some of them.

What is the Doha Agreement, and what does it stipulate about the electoral law?

The Doha Agreement is basically a power-sharing agreement between the March 14 and March 8 blocs that was reached following the May 2008 events, consolidating those already in power. It is based on the 1960 electoral law, which defines the electoral constituency at the level of the caza, or district, with some amendments. The amendments include the redrawing of districts in Beirut, as well as keeping Marjayoun-Hasbaya, Baalbek-Hermel, and West Bekaa-Rashaya as single electoral constituencies, ensuring that there will be only minor changes to the current electoral dynamic (with the exception of Christians). In other words, Future bloc leader MP Saad Hariri will be strengthened as a Sunni leader, Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt will be strengthened as the Druze leader, while Amal and Hezbollah will consolidate their position as sole powerbrokers for the Shia. While the Doha Agreement focused on electoral redistricting, it fell short of mentioning any of the specific reforms that are so vital in the long-term.

How does the Doha Agreement affect Christian politics in particular?

While Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun dominated the Christian vote in 2005, the electoral law under the Doha Agreement that will dictate the 2009 parliamentary elections will put the lists of all three Christian leaderships — one of Aoun and Marada leader Sleiman Franjieh, another for Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea and Kataeb leader Amin Gemayel, and lastly, that of President Michel Sleiman — in relatively open-ended competition. Some analysts see this phenomenon as threatening to divide the Christian vote, while others see it as a sign of democratic progress, at least for Christian constituencies, if not all Lebanese. 

What is the current electoral debate about? What was the outcome of Tuesday’s parliamentary debate session?

The debate is about whether electoral reforms should be part and parcel of the electoral districting specified in the Doha Agreement. March 14 insisted on linking the reforms to electoral redistricting, while March 8 tried to push for adopting the law, separate from the reforms, during the session. As a result, this debate was referred to the Administration and Justice Parliamentary Committee, which approved the electoral redistricting the next day. The law, in addition to the reforms, will be finalized and referred to the parliament for debate on September 25, 2008.