By Patrick Galey
BEIRUT: Single non-transferable voting or Orthodox Gathering? First-past-the-post or proportional representation? Winner takes all or one man one vote?
Voting in Lebanon can be a tricky business, and with the release this month of Interior Minister Marwan Charbel’s draft election law, things are about to get a lot more complicated.
Among the reforms proposed in the legislation is the adoption of PR – or proportional representation – voting. While most pro-democracy campaigners largely view this as a good thing, most voters might struggle to explain exactly why that is the case.
The complications surrounding voting in Lebanon are as old as the country itself. Its constitution has no set voting method enshrined in law, as Article 24 states that the “number and the method of [deputies’] election [are] determined by the electoral laws in effect.”
For the longest time, Lebanese have voted in a “winner takes all” system. It was used during 2009’s parliamentary elections, and threw up some interesting results.
Take the districts of Kesrouan and Beirut 1. While the 2005 Butros Commission proposed a number of changes to the antiquated electoral law, the unrest of May 2008 killed the most significant mooted changes, leaving Lebanon with 128 seats allocated between 26 districts, or qadas. The prevailing majoritarian system meant MPs were selected largely on the basis of belonging to a victorious voting list, irrespective of their true popularity.
In Kesrouan in 2009, Free Patriotic Movement Leader Michel Aoun and his list won 51 percent of the vote, yet “won” all five seats. Similarly, in Beirut 1, the March 14 list swept the board with just 53 percent of the vote. As one election observer pointed out, Aoun, as a byproduct of the incumbent system, “was one jumbo jet full of Australian [Lebanese] voters away from losing in his heartland” – a reference to allegations that both political blocs had arranged for expatriates to come to Lebanon and vote during 2009’s parliamentary elections.
Given Lebanon’s multi-confessional makeup, political parties are frequently forced to arrange electoral alliances in order to maximize the chances of their candidates. Lists are formed out of political expediency, with parties eager to place candidates on heavyweight lists, safe in the knowledge that the system will usually mean victory, simply through belonging to such a ballot.
PR voting, on the other hand, would enable popular individuals on losing lists to be in with a chance of getting a seat, hence increasing voters’ freedom to choose on the basis of personality, policy or any other combination of factors superseded under the current system by the emphasis placed on list making.
Although it is generally assumed that PR voting would increase democracy in Lebanon, politicians remain divided on the issue.
“The difficulty we have now is that those willing to have PR do so for different reasons,” one insider to draft law negotiations told The Daily Star.
Hezbollah, for example, is in support of PR partly to reinforce its image as a leading reform party, but partly because such a system could enable March 8 to have its own Prime Minister, the insider added.
The current system engenders certain sectarian-parliamentarian bloc allegiances, the likes of which enable the powerful Future Movement – a March 14 stalwart – to use its popularity to ensure most Sunni candidates end up running – and winning – on March 14 lists. Even those who aren’t allied to the Future Movement, such as Prime Minister Najib Mikati, still end up running on March 14 lists. PR voting would allow the electorate to choose exactly which candidates from what lists they want to represent them.
While this may not radically alter the outcome of the 2013 election, it could change the nature of individual district battles.
“It’s quite likely that [with PR] we would be seeing a very different contest in each district from 2009,” said Richard Chambers, Lebanon’s chief of party for the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, a global voting advisory group.
By contrast, Progressive Socialist Party Walid Jumblatt has come out against PR, largely owing to the sectarian makeup of the Baabda, Aley and Chouf districts. Although there are only five Druze MPs in the three areas combined, the composition of voting lists coupled with the winner takes all system means that Jumblatt enjoys a large degree of control over all 19 of the districts’ seats.
In terms of districting, the Interior Ministry has provided 6 options for 2013, in addition to those proposed by civil society groups and former Interior Minister Ziyad Baroud.
Since the withdrawal of Israel, the size and number of districts have varied greatly. Most observers agree that districts were gerrymandered by Syria during the years of its military presence. After the 2005 elections, upon the recommendation of the Butros Commission, 26 districts were adopted, roughly along the lines of existing qada rather than the larger muhafaza (governorates).
The current options on the table range from 10 to 14 districts, although PR advocates are pushing for bigger districts. This may however prove difficult given the unwritten convention that qada from different muhafaza not be grouped together.
Of course, the larger the district the better the proportionality, although this can be taken to extremes. Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, for instance, has advocated Lebanon being classed as one district (as Beirut was until 2000). The motivation for this is obvious, given that Shiites will soon constitute the largest group in the country.
Others, such as some Christian leaders, are pushing for a “one man one vote” system, in which each individual can only vote for one candidate. The so-called Orthodox Gathering, currently being discussed by heads of Christian parties, would see separate ballots handed out for Muslims and Christians under one national constituency.
Elias Muhanna, who runs the Lebanese political blog Qifa Nabki, pointed out that the current district system shares the voting suffrage unevenly. Given that registered voters number 3,250,000, each of the 128 parliamentary seats should receive roughly 25,000 votes, but variances between districts often skew this parity.
In 2009, each of Kesrouan’s five seats received 17,825 votes, whereas each of Bint Jbeil’s got 41,132 –making every vote in the former more than twice as valuable as the latter.
But Lebanon’s prevailing sectarian divisions mean that changes to the voting system matter more than district divisions within that system, according to Muhanna.
“Even if we were to adjust the ratio, which I think we must do, it would not fundamentally change the basic landscape of Lebanese politics, which requires a lot of coalition building and inter-party – and by extension, inter-sect – cooperation,” he said.
“What would seem to me to have a much stronger effect on political dynamics would be the adoption of proportional representation.”