Beirut – The Lebanese political powers are “living on the edge of the abyss” in their efforts to produce a new parliamentary electoral law a month away from the June 20 end date of the term of the current parliament. Despite the almost unanimous agreement on the need to devise a new law, the current contradictory proposals of the political powers indicate the impossibility of reaching such an agreement.
This agreement hinges on two central factors: the first is appeasing all Lebanese powers and the second is having these powers obtain what they deem as their “right” in choosing the number of MPs to represent them.
In wake of the current stubbornness in stances, it seems that the electoral proposals will not garner this necessary approval. This therefore leaves Lebanon before two bitter choices: either a vacuum in the legislative authority or a return to the 1960 law that was ratified for the 1960 elections.
This law was annulled after the Taef Accord, but it made a return after the 2008 Doha agreement.
The electoral law crisis in Lebanon revolves around reaching fair representation at parliament between Christians and Muslims, as stipulated by the Taef Accord, despite the disparate number of Muslim and Christian voters. Christians only represent a third of the population.
The central dispute however revolves around the main Christian powers’ proposal of the election of Christian lawmakers by Christian voters. This will create several complications, most notably is the difficulty in dividing electoral districts. It will also have negative repercussions on the coexistence of the sects in the country because it cements sectarianism.
A prominent Lebanese authority told Asharq Al-Awsat that the Christian concern over the developments in the region and the targeting of Christians in Syria, Iraq and Egypt is leading them to adopt extreme solutions.
The source added that demographic factors also come into play. He noted that of the latest 1 million Lebanese to be registered in voter records, 800,000 of them were Muslim, signifying a major danger to the country’s demographic balance.
Christians complain that since the adoption of the Taef Accord, its main forces have been marginalized and General Michel Aoun was exiled in 1990 and Lebanese Forces (LF) leader Samir Geagea was imprisoned in 1993. Christian representation then fell in the hands of Muslim powers that could achieve the election of more than half of the Christian lawmakers in the South, Bekaa, North and Beirut. After the strong return of Aoun and Geagea to the political scene in wake of the Syrian troop withdrawal in 2005, they now seek to restore these “rights.”
The truth is that the pursuit of a new electoral law in Lebanon is an endless dispute. Each time elections were set to take place, it was said that the new parliament should have the priority in adopting a new law, but this has never happened except in 2008. At the time, the Lebanese politicians met in Doha in Qatar to save the country from a mini-civil war on May 6, 2008. The political clash between the forces devolved into a military one, when “Hezbollah” invaded Beirut and tried to breach the mountain regions. The gatherers in Doha agreed to return to the 1960 law, which is based on small electoral districts as opposed to large ones that were adopted in laws the post-Taef era.
The 2009 parliamentary elections were held based on the 1960 law and the new parliament set the adoption of a new law as a priority for the next polls. That parliament ended up extending its own term twice without ever proposing a law.
In order to cater to the fears of the Christians, current Prime Minister Saad Hariri made in 2013 an initiative based on a Taef Accord article that calls for eliminating political sectarianism. Once a new parliament is elected without sectarian restrictions, a senate council that represents all the sects would be established. Hariri’s proposal however called for only setting up the senate, while preserving equal representation between Muslims and Christians at parliament. That same year, Speaker Nabih Berri made a similar proposal, calling for eliminating sectarianism at parliament and preserving equal representation between Muslims and Christians, in return for the approval of a senate.
The peak of the Christians’ achievement in regards to the electoral law was what is known as the “Orthodox Law.” It calls for each sect to vote for its own lawmaker, which prompted wide Muslim objections. Christian forces also rejected it. This law however summed up the Christian fear. “Hezbollah” agreed to the law in solidarity with its ally Aoun. The law however was not adopted.
The so-called “qualification” electoral law emerged in response to the Orthodox one. It relies on sectarian reform and later nationwide elections. This law was first proposed by Berri to meet the Christian concerns that a number of Christian MPs were winning the polls through the votes of non-Christians. He suggested that those who earn 10 percent of the vote qualify to a second round of voting.
The speaker retracted his advocacy of this law after Foreign Minister Jebran Bassil proposed a law that calls for the election of lawmakers on a sectarian basis in the first round before choosing two of them to vote on the national level. Berri justified his rejection by saying: “I proposed this law to produce sausages, while others produced a pig from it.”
In wake of the speaker’s stance, Hariri made a significant position when he retracted his approval for the extension of parliament’s term for another year as he has agreed with Berri. This plunged the country further into crisis, especially after Berri and “Hezbollah” renewed their support for total proportionality in the electoral law on the basis of large districts. These stances were met by a Christian return to the Orthodox law.
Former Interior Minister Ziad Baroud told Asharq Al-Awsat that officials are now faced with either the approval of a new law or a return to square one. Parliament will then probably extend its term for a third time, which President Aoun will reject. He will then refer the extension law back to parliament, which will approve it through a majority vote, thereby making it valid. The president can then appeal the law at the Constitutional Council, explained the former minister.
As for the return to the 1960 law, Baroud said that that would not be an easy task.
“It can be adopted in theory, but it is not missed,” he said, explaining that a number of administrative procedures linked to inviting the voters to the polls and forming the authority to oversee the electoral campaign need to be approved before going ahead with this law.
The following are the stances of the main political blocs:
Change and Reform: Opposing vacuum and 1960 law
MP Nabil Nicola of Aoun’s Change and Reform bloc said that efforts are still underway between the political powers to reach an agreement over a new electoral law. He also noted Bassil’s recent statements that “we are not that far away from adopting a new law.”
“We are now in the position of the listener and receiver after we had been the initiator,” explained the MP. He said that the Change and Reform bloc has proposed 20 electoral proposal, but they were all rejected.
“They even rejected proposals that they themselves had suggested in the past… This is exactly what happened with the ‘qualification’ law,” he stressed.
Berri: Total Proportionality
MP Michel Moussa of the speaker’s Development and Liberation bloc said: “Berri’s stance is clear over the elections…. It is based primarily on proportionality and the Taef Accord, but no one was receptive of it. We can say the proposal has been frozen, but it has not been abandoned.”
“We now need to start searching for final proposals after each bloc offered his vision. We are also waiting for any new proposal on condition that it is acceptable and logical,” he added.
He attributed the failure to reach an agreement on a new law to the division between the Lebanese powers that are each trying to achieve their own interests. He therefore asserted that up until now, there are no positive indications that the current crisis will be resolved soon.
Mustaqbal: Will Go with Any Law that Enjoys Consensus
Mustaqbal Movement MP Mohammed al-Hajjar said that Hariri is still committed to his stance of rejecting the extension of parliament’s term.
“If the extension was aimed at ending the vacuum and giving room to agreeing on a new law, then that is another issue as agreement is one of our main demands,” he remarked to Asharq Al-Awsat.
He added that the Movement’s stances on electoral laws will not be “open or direct, but they will be made away from the spotlight in order to help reach agreement and avoid media speculation.”
LF: Return to 1960 Law if Agreement Fails
The LF’s Wehbe Qatisha blamed the failure of the talks over the electoral law on each party’s commitment to its stances and conditions. Each side is waiting for the other to make concessions that would lead to an agreement over a new law.
“Deadlines are looming however and each party should take a step forward so that we can meet each other halfway,” said Geagea’s aide.
He said that the LF would advocate complete proportionality if the necessary regulations are put in place that would allow Christians to vote for the largest number of their lawmakers are possible, given the current flawed demographics.
He noted however that the 1960 law has not died yet, saying that the elections will be held based on this law if the political powers fail to agree on a new one.
Kataeb: Majoritarian or Proportional Laws
Kataeb Party MP Elie Marouni told Asharq Al-Awsat that they had previously proposed an electoral law based on small districts, but it was rejected by other political blocs. He voiced his support for the law of former Prime Minister Najib Miqati that calls for proportional representation based on small and medium districts.
He said that returning to the 1960 law would be the “greatest of scandals”.
Jumblat: 1960 Law is Most Realistic
Democratic Gathering MP Fouad al-Saad: “Attempts to agree on a new electoral law that appeases all sides will never end because devising a law in a country that has so many sects as Lebanon is not an easy task.”
“It needs a sectarian minesweeper that is currently not available in Lebanon,” said Saad of MP Walid Jumblat’s bloc.
“Given the sectarian mix in Lebanon, the 1960 law remains the most viable and realistic compared to the other draft proposals, which we can say aim to eliminate the other,” he added.