A draft electoral law for the 2013 parliamentary elections written by Interior Minister Marwan Charbel introduces several reforms, but still drew the ire of civil society groups and is unlikely to pass because of opposition from the country’s political class.
The centerpiece of the draft legislation is proportional representation—a change to the winner-take-all system used in previous elections and something reformers have been demanding for years. Charbel’s proposal also calls for preferential voting, meaning voters choose their two top candidates when casting ballots for an entire list (also known as an open-list proportional-representation system).
Proportional representation means that districts can no longer be won by a single list of candidates as easily. In past elections, if a list’s candidates received 50 percent or more of the vote, all of the candidates got elected to parliament, regardless of the fact that another list also received a significant number of votes. Under Charbel’s law, if a district with 10 seats had two lists that split the vote 60:40, one list would send six candidates to parliament while the other would send four.
Which candidates are elected from a given list would be determined based on preferential voting if Charbel’s draft becomes law. The minister proposed letting voters choose two candidates from the list for which they vote. Once vote counters identify how many seats each list won in a district, the list’s candidates are chosen based on how many preferential votes they received, a system the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections (LADE), the country’s largest electoral reform body, is against.
“We’re convinced that the mentality should be voting for a list, a strategy, not for individual candidates,” Rony Assaad, a coordinator at LADE, told NOW Lebanon. He said that, ideally, a list of candidates should present a specific, detailed platform complete with plans outlining what candidates will accomplish—or try to accomplish—if elected. An entire list should work together to woo voters instead of individual candidates trying to rack up loyalty points, he argued.
In announcing his draft law at a press conference earlier this month, Charbel said that preferential voting is more democratic, giving voters more of a voice in picking their representatives. Indeed, under a draft law LADE proposed—which also calls for proportional representation—a list’s candidates would enter parliament based on the order in which their names appear on pre-printed ballots, meaning political parties who write the lists have more influence over who gets elected than in a preferential-voting system. Lebanon has never used a pre-printed ballot in elections, though the minister’s proposal mandates their use.
Charbel also included other reforms civil society groups have long advocated for, including a 30 percent quota on lists for female candidates and allowing expatriates to vote from their countries of residence. That said, many in civil society circles were put off because Charbel did not include them in the process of writing his proposed law.
“A lot of work has been done [by civil society groups] to draft new [electoral] laws,” Sylvana Lakkis, general manager of the Lebanese Physical Handicapped Union—which has worked on electoral law reform—told NOW Lebanon. “That work shouldn’t be forgotten. We should build on it, not ignore it.”
What riled reformers most, however, is Charbel’s law’s lack of an independent electoral observation committee. The minister’s draft law does call for a committee to oversee voting, but it will be part of, and subordinate to, the Ministry of Interior. LADE held a demonstration last month to protest against the fact that the committee is not fully independent.
LADE’s Assaad told NOW Lebanon that the organization is also upset with the draft law’s suggestions on electoral districts. The law gives several options for how to carve the country into voting districts (offering 10, 12, 13 or 14, down from the 26 districts used in the 2009 election), and leaves it to parliament to choose the option it prefers, should the law be approved. Assaad said LADE would prefer larger districts, bringing the total number to between six and nine.
There has been much debate as to which political parties would pick up the most seats in a proportional-representation system, given that reaching 50 percent of the vote would no longer give an entire district to one party or alliance of parties. However, advocates of proportional representation hope that the real advantage will be allowing independent candidates a chance to break into the halls of parliament.
“Proportional representation should open the field for small groups and independents,” Lakkis said.
That, in fact, seems the most likely reason why most major political parties have either directly come out against the law or demurred, suggesting they need more time to “study” it. While they may indeed fear losing a few seats to rival parties or coalitions, the country’s political elite seem most concerned about opening up the “old boy’s club” that is Lebanese politics to uncontrolled upstarts running as independents, who in 2009 stood no chance of winning but who could pull off a victory in 2013 with a proportional-representation system.