Rony al-Assaad and his colleagues are determined to keep trying, though Assaad recognizes they are almost certain to fail. A coordinator at the Civil Campaign for Electoral Reform (CCER), Assaad has spent years working on a new electoral law based on proportional representation.
Lebanon’s political class, which just two weeks ago seemed to support proportional representation, is turning its back on the concept as debate about the 2013 parliamentary law is set to begin soon.
Since independence in 1943, Lebanon’s parliamentary elections have been based on a winner-take-all system. While electoral laws, and the size of districts, have varied, elections have proceeded thusly: One or more parties would form a list of candidates for the seats in a district.
Most often, there are only two lists in any given district. In general, the list that receives the most votes wins the entire district, even if the vote is split as closely as 51 percent to 49 percent. There is, however, some room for maneuver in that lists are “open,” meaning voters can mix and match.
Though very rare, a list of candidates can theoretically be “breached” by a candidate from a rival list if enough mixing and matching occurs. In practice, however, entire lists are almost always elected in a winner-take-all fashion.
Many, particularly civil society activists, see this as unfair, and proportional representation, where seats are divvied up based on the percentage of the vote a list receives, has been debated since the end of the civil war.
In 2006, after a nine-month study, an independent commission led by former minister and MP Fouad Boutros drafted an electoral law that included numerous reforms, including partial proportional representation. The so-called Boutros Law called for 51 of parliament’s 128 deputies to be elected based on proportional representation, while the rest would be elected based on the current regimen.
This draft, however, was never implemented, and most of the reforms it called for (including reducing the voting age from 21 to 18 and allowing expatriates to vote from abroad) were shunned in the 2009 electoral law. Debate, it seems, will soon begin on the law governing the 2013 parliamentary elections.
Interior Minister Marwan Charbel, who is responsible for overseeing elections, said earlier this month that he will draft an electoral law by the end of September based on proportional representation. On paper, such a system is something the cabinet is open to.
Article 15 of the current government’s ministerial statement said, “One of the cabinet’s priorities will be to launch a national workshop to draft a new legislative election law in conformity with the Lebanese people’s ambition to achieve accurate and fair political representation. Hence, previous reform projects that included various options and reforms, especially with regard to proportional representation, shall be thoroughly examined.”
Both before and after Charbel’s announcement, President Michel Sleiman, Speaker Nabih Berri, Free Patriotic Movement MP Alain Aoun and PM Najib Mikati all said they support proportional representation.
Then Lebanon’s “kingmaker” chimed in.
“Since the ‘leftists’ are [politically] weak… it is better to postpone the discussion about an electoral law [based on proportional representation], and maintain the status quo in order to preserve diversity,” Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt said in the Chouf town of Ikleem al-Kharoub on August 13.
“I would rather win or lose [the elections] among my [peers] in Ikleem al-Kharoub, than ‘melt’ in bigger [districts],” the Druze leader added.
Jumblatt’s last comment reflects a common critique politicians have offered of proportional representation: It would negatively affect the country’s minority populations. Not necessarily true, Assaad argued.
He told NOW Lebanon that CCER’s draft law maintains parliament’s sectarian divisions (with a set number of seats allocated for each sect), so minorities would get the same number of seats as they did in 2009.
However, he said that he is quite certain that CCER’s law will not pass. First, he said, Jumblatt’s opposition is quite significant.
“We had a meeting with [Hezbollah MP] Mohammad Raad recently,” Assaad said. “He said that Jumblatt’s statement has an effect on Hezbollah, which doesn’t want to lose him as an ally so they can be the parliamentary majority in the next election.”
In an interview before a meeting of Christian parties from across the political spectrum was held on Friday to discuss electoral law reform, Assaad said attendees would likely also skirt a solid commitment to proportional representation.
Indeed, following the meeting, former Interior Minister Ziad Baroud said those gathered discussed the electoral law and decided to meet again in mid-September, having reached no solid conclusions. He said proportional representation is “reformist” but “should not be imposed on any side.”
As for CCER’s law in particular, Assaad said, Interior Minister Charbel formed his own committee to draft an electoral law that included no members of civil society.
In the end, he said he expects politicians to reject proportional representation once again because it would threaten their grip on power. A proportional system, he said, would make it easier for independents, people who reject the March 14-March 8 dichotomy that has dominated political life in Lebanon for the past six years, to get elected.
“A proportional system is a good way to represent all of our social and confessional differences,” he said. “The real fear of the [main political] parties is that they will lose their grip on power.”