Lebanon – MPs focus on districting, but fail to answer right questions

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 Nijmeh Square in Downtown Beirut is hosting an intensive debate on whether Lebanon should enact a parliamentary election law that moves into uncharted territory, or ends up cementing the widely criticized “back to the future approach” of the 1960 law.

The Taif Accord of 1989 stipulated the country’s governorates – Beirut, Mount Lebanon, North Lebanon, South Lebanon, Nabatieh and the Bekaa – as the electoral districts, but the proposals now being debated go in every direction except this one.

Instead of focusing efforts on instituting substantial electoral reform, such as a printed ballot and voting by Lebanese abroad, politicians are overwhelmingly concerned with districting, and cementing their chance for victory.

Khalil Gebara, a lecturer at the American University of Beirut and a former member of the government’s committee that supervised the 2009 election round, said politicians are not asking the right questions as they debate the law.

“First of all, Parliament should make it clear whether it wants to ensure proper representation for geographical districts, or proper representation for the sects within individual geographical districts,” Gebara told The Daily Star.

But hurdles remain in the face of all of the proposals, due to the presence of problematic items in the Constitution. For instance, only a Shiite is eligible to run for elections in Nabatieh, because the district has only Shiite seats, and thus deprives non-Shiites of “proper representation,” according to critics of the sectarian-based system. Similarly, in Kesrouan, with five Maronite seats, only Maronites can represent the district, even though non-Maronites are present.

But even in expanded mixed electoral constituencies such as Baalbek-Hermel where six Shiite seats are joined by two Sunni seats and one each for Maronites and Catholics, the smaller communities often complain of underrepresentation because the largest sect in the district calls the shots.

The Taif Accord, which ended the Civil War, equally divided Parliament between Christian and Muslim MPs, and proportionally among the Christian and Muslim sects.

Taif’s constitutional amendments stipulated the establishment of a Senate to incorporate the sect representatives and abolish sectarianism in the lower house, but that hasn’t materialized.

Former Deputy Speaker of Parliament Elie Ferzli of the Orthodox Gathering says that since Lebanon has been unable to establish the Senate and abolish political sectarianism, individual sects should elect their own MPs in one nationwide district.

Ferzli’s proposal has been known as the Orthodox Gathering, which lawmakers have been discussing at Nijmeh Square this week.

Under such a proposal, Ferzli, a Greek Orthodox, would be voting for 14 Greek Orthodox seats in different geographical districts.

“Either the country is sectarian or not,” says Ferzli. “Let there be a non-sectarian Parliament and there won’t be need for such a law.”

According to Ferzli, the Orthodox Gathering proposal would both resolve the most divisive issues and weaken sectarian affiliation.

“By giving every sect the right to elect its own MPs, there will be a bigger opportunity to fight sectarianism than all the electoral laws so far have provided,” he says. “People should fight sectarianism from the inside.”

Ferzli’s proposal also stipulates proportional representation, which would be a first for Lebanon, but the idea of restricting voters’ choices to members of their sect has spurred President Michel Sleiman’s firm opposition. Sleiman vowed to challenge the law before the Constitutional Court if it is enacted.

Former Prime Minister and Future Movement leader Fouad Siniora has been a leading critic of the proposal.

“When we approve each sect electing its own representatives, we will be giving a chance to extremists from each group to use their opinions in an attempt to win the people’s sympathy,” he said earlier this week.

Siniora said that the proposal contradicts Taif, which calls for Muslim-Christian coexistence.

Responding to Siniora’s claim that the proposal would promote extremism, Ferzli says the Christians want to rid their parliamentary seats of dependence on non-Christian votes, relying on an argument championed by the Maronite patriarchate.

“Let Siniora fight extremism in the Sunni community; we reject the use of Christians as tools to fight extremism,” Ferzli said.

According to Gebara, one of the key problems stems from the post-Taif decision to add an extra 20 seats to the legislature, after it was initially increased to 108 seats.

“The question today should be why those seats were added in those specific districts,” he said.

Criticizing the Orthodox Gathering proposal, Gebara argues that elections would no longer be aimed at electing representatives for different regions:

“The elections will no longer be about geographic regions … [it will be] who is voting, and not where.”

Breakdown of electoral law proposals

2009, also known as 1960 law

Winner-takes-all system, based roughly on the qada, with Beirut split into three districts.

Who opposes it and who supports it?

Parties across the board have rejected this system, with the exception of the Progressive Socialist Party of Walid Jumblatt, who won 11 seats in 2009.

Cabinet’s proposal:

Introduces proportional representation system, with 13-middle-sized districts and Beirut split into two districts.

Who opposes it and who supports it?

The March 14 coalition opposes the proposal, because of the influence of an armed political party, Hezbollah, in certain districts. PSP leader Walid Jumblatt opposes it because his bloc’s size would shrink. Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun and Hezbollah support it.

Orthodox Gathering proposal:

Introduces proportional representation, but each sect elects its own MPs in a nationwide district.

Who opposes it and who supports it?

The Future Movement opposes it because its 40-member bloc in Parliament would shrink due to the presence of many non-Sunni lawmakers; the PSP leader also opposes it because his parliamentary bloc includes non-Druze MPs. March 14 independent figures also oppose it since the chances of their re-election are reduced without the support of voters from other sects. The Lebanese Forces, the Kataeb Party, the FPM, Hezbollah and Amal Movement have endorsed the proposal.

 

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