Has there ever been a greater red herring than the debate over proportional representation in Lebanon’s elections? The latest news is that President Michel Sleiman intends to consult with prominent politicians and others over a law that guarantees “the best representation for all segments of the Lebanese people.”
Sleiman has been a prominent defender of proportionality. He believes that the 1960 election law, under which voting takes place at the level of the qada, or the small electoral district, and which serves as the basis of the current law, produces “only sectarian fragmentation.” Perhaps, but proportionality hardly reduces fragmentation, which doesn’t mean that it is undesirable.
The president is playing populist politics – portraying himself as the defender of unrepresented voters, of cross-sectarian unity, of national concord, and what have you. But the fact is that there is no momentum in parliament to approve a proportional law, despite statements to the contrary, and Sleiman is well aware of this.
The reason is simple. The major parliamentary blocs would lose seats if proportional representation were introduced, and they’re the ones who have to sign off on any new election law. That’s assuming that the government can agree to a draft law in the first place, which is doubtful, since Walid Jumblatt would first withdraw his ministers from the Cabinet, decisively weakening it, before siding with those opposed to a proportional law if it came to a vote before parliament. Given that March 14 has refused to discuss an election law based on proportionality “in the shadow of Hezbollah’s weapons,” we can assume that the project would be cut down by the combined rejection of Jumblatti and March 14 parliamentarians.
Hezbollah, the Future Movement, Walid Jumblatt and Michel Aoun, all have a vested interest in preserving the status quo. They are delighted with a law that awards them all or most seats in electoral districts, simply because the system today benefits candidates on the stronger lists. Whereas a proportional system might measure the percentages earned by each list, and distribute seats accordingly, the present law counts the top vote-getters. In most areas, those on the list backed by the major political representatives of a district in question are virtually guaranteed of winning the most votes. And where several politicians or political organizations are present, the preference has been to divvy up the pie through electoral alliances.
This system has long permitted Hezbollah to sweep numerous Shiite-majority districts in the south and the Bekaa, the Future Movement to do well in predominantly Sunni districts, Aoun to rake in the major share of Christian seats in Mount Lebanon – in collaboration with Hezbollah in Baabda, Jbeil and Metn – and Jumblatt to have a headlock on the Chouf and Aley. Not one of these politicians or blocs is remotely sympathetic to proportional representation.
Even Samir Geagea, who seeks to challenge Aoun as the leading Christian figure in Parliament, prefers the current law, since it allows several of his candidates to ride Hariri’s coattails, and perhaps even Jumblatt’s, in districts where the two men dominate. The reality is that Lebanon’s political class, for all its disagreements, will rally around proposals perpetuating its rule – which generally means, because the system engenders equilibrium, collective rule.
What is the president’s objective in advocating proportionality? To curry favor, certainly, but perhaps also to toss out a line that may reel in a larger fish. Almost by default, Lebanese presidents maneuver to extend their mandates. Sleiman has recently advanced on parallel tracks, pushing for a proportional mechanism while also defending the right of Lebanese expatriates to vote. This has allowed him to position himself as a champion of those seeking a third way, free of the stifling March 14 versus Hezbollah and Aoun dichotomy. Moreover, the expatriate vote idea is popular among Christians, who view it as a means of counterbalancing their numerical decline.
If Sleiman succeeds in getting this message across, he may create new opportunities for himself in the future. For instance, if there are no elections next year, let’s say due to ongoing conflict in Syria, this could facilitate an extension of the president’s mandate a year later. Pushing for the expatriate vote is a good idea in itself. If Sleiman is doing a bait and switch, where he is pushing proportionality in order to impose a compromise that would implement expatriate voting, then all the better. But he is not doing this gratuitously. To have any chance of winning an extended mandate, the president wants to be perceived as an election reformer, not least by his own coreligionists.
It’s a thin reed for the president, but he doesn’t have much room to act. And talk of delaying the election is almost certainly just talk. There will be no consensus over such a decision, making it infinitely more difficult for the government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati to put into practice. Nor does Mikati have an incentive to discredit himself by endorsing a departure from constitutional deadlines.
The pattern of dysfunctional politics in Lebanon is well established. When major decisions are to be reached, everyone throws in a caveat to gain from the process. In the end a compromise is reached, so that much remains the same. The elections next year will most probably resemble those of 2009, even if the stakes are higher. Almost everything you’re hearing today is the hollow echo of manipulation.
Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR. He tweets @BeirutCalling.