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Electoral Reform in Lebanon

By Deen Sharp, Deen Sharp.

In June 2009 Lebanon held its first 'free' election since 1972. On the conclusion of the elections Western media and political analysts were particularly guilty of premature celebrations and hyperbole, regarding the Western backed March 14 coalition election victory. These past elections were not a battle in which: "President Barack Obama defeated President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran"(1) or Western ideals of liberal democracy triumphed against Islamic totalitarianism. This confusion was immediately evident after the winning March 14 coalition soon began to fracture and Lebanon fell into all too familiar political paralysis. The reason for this misplaced euphoria by Western pundits was due to an essential misunderstanding about the battle being fought on the Lebanese political playing field. These elections were largely void of political ideology and were centered on the fight to represent certain sectarian groups, especially so for the Christian population, and the protection of patrimonial networks.

Consociational politics have been deliberately established in Lebanon to ensure the protection of minority groups and ensure power sharing. But the politics of sect are not seen as sufficient by the Lebanese and there is a strong desire among civil society actors to change this consociational politics. One method being pushed, in this battle of "bad governance against good," is electoral reform. Reformers are trying to ensure that in the creation of a new election law for the 2013 elections two mechanisms are introduced: Proportional Representation (PR) and the creation of a Senate.

The June 2009 Election

Reform in Lebanon has been in the air a while; for the election in June important reforms had been passed; the Election Day itself was deemed a great success. The election was successfully held on one day instead of four consecutive weekends and for the first time the monitoring of campaigning and campaign spending was carried out. Further to this, there was a widely publicized push to improve the accuracy and transparency of the voter register. However, away from all these electoral smiles, significant reforms had not been made. All of the crucial reforms recommended by the National Commission for a New Electoral Law (also known as the Boutros Commission) had been ignored: Such as the introduction of proportional representation, the introduction of universal ballots and the creation of an independent electoral commission.

The Current Electoral System

The electoral system and the structure of politics in Lebanon are based the creation of a political safeguard to ensure that domination does not occur between any of the three main religious groups: the Shi'a, Sunni and Christians(2). Half of the seats in parliament are divided among seven Christian denominations, and the other half are reserved for members of four different Muslim sects. In the executive branch, cabinet seats are also parcelled out in confessional allotments, while the three highest posts in the land – President, Prime Minister, and Speaker of Parliament – are always held by a Maronite Christian, a Sunni, and a Shiite, respectively(3).

In the electoral system this protection has been translated in establishing a system that uses a first past the post and reserves a certain number of seats in each district for certain religious sects. Beirut, for instance, has three districts. In Beirut District One there are five seats all of which are Christian; each of these five seats is exclusively for a certain denomination (Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Armenian Catholic, Greek Catholic and Maronite). In Beirut District Three there are ten seats: three Christian (Greek Orthodox, Evangelical and Minorities) and seven Muslim (five Sunni, one Shi'a and one Druze). The candidate running must be from one of these denominations and will then compete in a first past the post system.

The electoral law used for the June 2009 election made the sectarian nature of Lebanese politics even worse. This fact was noticeably absent in the reporting by the international press. Through increasing the electoral districts from 14 to 26 actually increased the sectarian nature of the elections. An assessment of the electoral law published by Democracy Reporting International (DRI) and the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections (LADE) concluded the new division of electoral districts essentially created 13 new "mono-confessional" districts(4).

The problem of sectarianism in the political process has not escaped the Lebanese. In Article 22 of the Constitution and the Taif Accord (5) both call for an end to the sectarian nature of Lebanese politics. There is a now a window for reform for the 2013 election to be changed, as the law used for 2009 cannot be used again, due to the fact it is based upon a law created by the Syrians. Many civil society activists believe that through the reform of the electoral and parliamentary system the confessional nature of Lebanese politics can be reduced.

Proportional Representation (PR)

The principal of PR is that the seats in a constituency are divided according to the number of votes for party lists(6). The PR system is explicitly designed to protect the minority voice and as such it is believed that this system would ease political polarization. The Boutros Commission proposed that a PR system be partially introduced. It recommended that 51 representatives be chosen through PR at the governorate level and the other 77 be selected at the smaller district level using the current first past the post system.

The basic idea of using a PR system for Lebanon is that it would remove the dominance of big parties and individuals entrenched in certain areas of the country. PR would break up the supremacy of the major parties and allow independents to come through unaligned to a bloc (7). Political parties who have a large number of supporters in a district but are not the outright majority would be able to get representation; even more importantly those parties that have a large number of supporters around the country and not concentrated in single electoral districts would get represented. The PR system would make the political system more national and hopefully therefore less sectarian. John Stewart Mill, shortly after the idea of PR was created, beautifully summed up the benefits of a PR electoral system:

"It would be impossible any longer to foist upon the electors the first person who presents himself with the catchwords of the party in his mouth, and three or four thousand pounds in his pocket. The majority would insist on having a candidate worthy of their choice, or they would carry their votes somewhere else."

Apart from the fact that the PR system has the almighty obstacle of having to be introduced into the Lebanese political system by the very people that it is trying to wrestle power from, there are concerns with the PR system itself. PR would stop inter-confessional voting, for example, at the moment if you are in a electoral district where only a Shia can run then as a Sunni or Christian you have to vote for a Shia candidate. This would therefore, increase sectarianism and the homogenization of Lebanese politics. PR could increase the homogenizing sectarian forces in Lebanon. Also taking the experience of Israel and Italy the PR system can create incredibly unstable governments, not something Lebanon needs to import. However, if concomitantly you introduce a Senate, or more importantly a bicameral parliamentary system, with complete PR it is argued that the instability of PR would be overcome.

The Senate

In 1926 the first Constitution established a Senate and an elected Chamber of deputies but the Senate was abolished shortly after its creation. Many Lebanese politicians are also calling for the re-establishment of a Senate, most importantly incumbent President Suleiman. More importantly there is a lively debate on the pros and cons of the creation of a Senate in the Lebanese blogosphere.

Put simply the creation of a Senate aims to: move all the undesirable elements of Lebanese politics, such as sectarianism, away from the executive and place it in a body, much like that House of Lords, with limited powers. This would mean that the legislative body - the parliament - would be free of sectarianism and therefore would be able to operate on the basis of expressing the will of the majority. As political analysts Elias Muhanna, who has been actively promoting the creation of a Senate (8), argues:

"Sequestering confessional interests in a dedicated institution would allow the Chamber of Deputies to be transformed from a marketplace of sectarian bartering into the primary locus of political authority whose constituent was the citizen, irrespective of his or her religion."

The fear is that adding yet another layer of political apparatus in Lebanon's political system would create further paralysis in the current system. It is also argued by those against the creation of a Senate that the establishment of an explicitly sectarian body would only entrench sectarian divisions further not remove them. It is unlikely, the opponents of a Senate argue, that the executive would be able to shrug off its sectarian nature and you would just be doubling up the problem.

The Static Reality

The desire to build a stronger internal system of governance is there among the Lebanese; the political good will is not. To articulate the scale of the problem, the rotten core of the Lebanese political elite has meant that even the most simple of reforms, such as the creation of a universal ballot, was unable to pass. The creation of a Senate and a PR system is an unlikely event.

However, a glimmer of light comes from the experience of other countries. The electoral expert Pippa Norris gives some comfort from her research on the role of the public in electoral reform that showed: "Democratic aspirations help to drive institutional changes, even in transitional regimes with a poor record of civil liberties and political rights ." A reminder to all Lebanese civil society activists and international actors pushing for electoral reform: Yes the push for reform can be frustratingly slow and appear to be impossible but public pressure does make a difference. As Paul Salem, the Director of Carnegie Middle East noted, "While Lebanon's political system is highly dysfunctional, it is actually also quite fragile and 'impactable'… with the right kind of pressure, you can make an influence on it."

1.Fridman, T, Ballots Over Bullets, New York Times, June 2009http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/10/opinion/10friedman.html?_r=1

2. Berti, B, Electoral Reform in Lebanon, Mideast Monitor, August 2009

3. Muhanna, E. Two houses, many mansions, 14 August http://www.thenational.ae/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20090814/REVIEW/708139987/1008

4.IRIN, Lebanon: Elections entrench sectarian divisions, analysts say, 7 June 2009

5.The agreement that ended the civil war

6.Norris, P, Choosing Electoral Systems http://ksghome.harvard.edu/~pnorris/Acrobat/IPSR%20Choosing%20Electoral%20Systems.pdf

7.Sharp, D, Electoral Reform and Proportional Representation,http://lebelections.blogspot.com/2009/06/electoral-reform-and-proportional.html#comments

8.See: http://lebanonsenate.org/