Mixed Proportionality in Lebanese Electoral Law: Political Reform in Context

2017-08-29    |   

Mixed Proportionality in Lebanese Electoral Law: Political Reform in Context

On June 16, 2017, the Lebanese Parliament passed a new law for parliamentary elections after the major political powers reached a consensus on its provisions. Most importantly, the law comprised a transition from a majoritarian electoral system to a [mixed] proportional system for the first time in Lebanon’s history. Amidst this transition, the law rejected several civil demands such as the demand to move beyond sectarianism, or give voters the option to elect candidates not based on sectarian affiliation, and the demand to establish a parliamentary quota for women. The law also rejected the demand that proportionality be established on the basis of a single electoral district, or large districts. The proportional system adopted is based on small districts, which has caused some people to go as far as to describe it as a majoritarian system in disguise.

However, while the objections to the degree of proportionality adopted are important, we must briefly examine the previous majoritarian system to understand the importance of moving beyond it. The abolished majoritarian system was a multi-seat system under which elections occurred in a single round. The candidates who acquired the highest percentage of votes won, even if they did not have an absolute majority. To make this system worse, the districts were transformed into ‘districts of influence’ for the elite political leaders, such that they could sweep all the seats in the districts under their influence. In practice, this system undermined electoral competition and constituted a major mainstay of the regime of elite leaders [nizam al-z’uma’], wherein these leaders attract large majorities in each electoral district and divvy up these districts (and hence power) among themselves.

Hence, although the objections to the proportional system adopted are important, the move beyond the aforementioned majoritarian system should not be downplayed. Hopefully, the democratic forces can succeed in handling this development such that it becomes a turning point in the history of the Lebanese state.

In this article, I will briefly evaluate the system adopted from several angles.

Forces Outside of Government: Modest Chances of Success

Of course, one of the merits of the proportional system is that it allows political forces to enjoy representation in parliament in proportion to their support among voters, without requiring the support of the majority. Hence proportionality, in principle, constitutes a recipe for respecting and promoting pluralism, and obstructs clientelism and schemes of domination. While the new system does this to some extent, the major political forces endeavored to reduce its effects in two ways.

  1. Shrinking the electoral districts, thereby reducing the number of seats that must be distributed in accordance with the proportionality principle. There are 15 small districts, and the number of seats for each one varies from 5 to 13. In nine of the districts, there are no more than eight seats; and

  2. Making the threshold for winning equal to the electoral quotient, which is inversely proportional to the number of seats. Hence, the threshold for winning under the system adopted varies from 20% to 7% of the vote, although it is no less than 12.5% in nine of the districts. Any political currents that obtain a lower percentage in a given district are marginalized and deprived of representation in parliament for that district.


Consequently, it is possible to envision an electoral scenario wherein there are two kinds of lists: those with a sectarian character that are assured of widespread support because of their coherence, and the clarity of the forces that arranged them; and, those rife with contradictions because of the novelty and diversity of the parties that formed them. While this scenario reduces the chances of forces outside of government winning seats, it does leave the doors open –if only ajar– for them to do so. In this regard, we need only look at the percentage of votes that needed to be obtained to win in the majoritarian system to realize the importance of the change in the new law.

Additionally, the abovementioned scenario could still be turned upside down if the civil forces succeed in spread amongst the populace a mood of indignance toward the forces in power, or of support for these civil forces to one degree or another –as occurred during the summer 2015 movement and as has occurred in Beirut and several other regions– amidst the parliamentary elections.

A Law That Mitigates Group-Loyalty?

The second question that must be raised is, to what extent does this law mitigate group-loyalty? Three factors must be taken into consideration.

The first is that the mere adoption of proportionality will, in practice, enable all political forces that enjoy some degree of political support to obtain seats, although the democratic and reformist forces’ chances remain limited due to the issues explained above. It is hoped that the civil forces, should they breach the open doors, will succeed in introducing reformist elements into political life and institutional life in particular, elements that gradually weaken the regime of elite leaders and quota-sharing. By ‘civil forces’, I mean the forces that support any trend promoting civil life shared by all citizens. They are distinct from the forces that support trends promoting polarization, which usually take a sectarian form.

The second is that in many instances, the electoral districting occurred on a sectarian basis, producing districts wherein there is no intermixing or there is a dominant sect. There are three homogeneous sectarian districts, while there are six districts that have a dominant sect. No more than six districts have an equal or near-equal mix. This districting is to some extent reminiscent of the “Orthodox” electoral bill and the bills proposing sectarian primary elections, which were repeatedly put forward before the law’s current form was reached. These bills were based on the idea that candidates should be elected or qualified for a second round exclusively by voters who belong to their sect; as though Christian voters are only concerned with evaluating Christian candidates, and have no capacity or interest in evaluating the Muslim candidates. This notion paralyzes public life and prevents its development.

The third is the adoption of the preferential ballot. Voters may, in addition to choosing their preferred list, cast a preferential vote for one of the candidates on that list. Subsequently, when the seats for a certain list are divided among its members, the member who obtains the largest number of preferential votes has precedence. Of course, the fear is that this preferential ballot will be a tool for accentuating sectarian identity or any form of group-loyalty, for voters will tend to give their votes to the leader of the sect or region to which they belong, or at least to a candidate that belongs to that sect. Consequently, it is feared that the preferential ballot will reduce the benefits of intermixing –which is already restricted to a small number of districts– such that the seats of every list that derives its support base from a specific sect go exclusively to its candidates from that sect. For in practice, Muslim voters vote for Muslim candidates, and Christian voters vote for Christian candidates. This matter too is reminiscent of the same Orthodox bill and similar laws.

While the creation of denominationally homogeneous districts can be explained by the Christians’ desire to have electoral weight equal to that of the Muslims despite the demographic imbalance between them, the preferential ballot in practice gives the upper hand to a list’s members who belong to the sect from which it derives its electoral bases. This means that the sectarian preoccupation encompasses not only ensuring equality between the sects with respect to the number of seats (which is guaranteed by law) and ensuring equality in the electoral weight of each sect (which is guaranteed by the districting and the adoption of proportionality), but also ensuring that Christians are elected by Christians and vice versa (which is encouraged by the preferential ballot). The civil forces can exploit this state of affairs by attracting all those indignant toward lists supported by the leaders of their sects and who, given the aforementioned state of affairs, are naturally indignant toward lists supported by the leaders of the other sects.

Of course, discussions about what could have been done to improve the law or rid it of its defects is unproductive, for the major political sides produced this law by consensus and after a relatively long tug of war between them. To amend any of its paragraphs would be difficult, at least in relation to the districting and the electoral system adopted. Hence, this analysis aims not to prospect the ideal solutions, but to comprehend the interests that led the political sides to this consensus; so that we can then identify the conduct and orientations that the democratic civil forces should adopt to increase their chances of winning seats.

This article is an edited translation from Arabic.

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