Lebanon News

Election-law saga reaches a fever pitch

Politicians are scrambling for ways to modify the boundaries of existing governorates to turn them into electoral districts for next year’s polls without being accused of favoring one area over the other or tailoring the law for certain individuals.

Speaker Nabih Berri said Wednesday he has agreed with President Emile Lahoud that “no exceptions” would be made in 2000, stressing that the electoral law must be “fair and equal.”

Quoted by MPs, Berri reiterated his preference for the governorate over the qada, saying that the smaller district would “fragment” votes, referring to the possibility of a high number of candidacies that would translate into MPs being elected with very low percentages of the vote.

From Bkirki, former Foreign Minister Fouad Butros repeated his support for the qada, noting that nothing had changed regarding the position of Christian MPs and politicians who endorsed the position in June. “I know that (electoral districting) is a difficult issue, but I haven’t changed my position, which is that someone will come along eventually and ‘pronounce a revelation’ or ‘arrange things.’ Everyone will continue to make statements until the clock strikes,” he said.

But behind the scenes, according to observers, the qada-based district has been virtually ruled out, leaving four practical options: the governorate under a majority system, the governorate with qualification at the qada level, the governorate with proportional representation, or a division of the five governorates into smaller districts, grouping two or three qadas.

The majority system retains the current arrangements of winner-take-all, since a second-place candidate list that secures nearly half of the votes has no guarantee of representation in Parliament. The proportional system, in contrast, guarantees that second- and third-place lists pick up a share of seats that reflects their share of the results.

While politicians, as Butros put it, continue to “make statements” about the district that they prefer, a number of analysts and researchers are preparing detailed studies and proposals about mechanisms to introduce a governorate system.

Some have already been introduced to the ministerial committee charged with drafting the law, but with the committee’s work having stalled, senior politicians are now conducting regular, more informal consultations.

Prime Minister Salim Hoss and other politicians with roots in the opposition of recent years advocate proportional representation, but observers say that an uncomplicated mechanism has yet to catch on in the mind of the public, or with top politicians.

Sources familiar with the issue say that the “complication” continues to lie in Mount Lebanon, which had an exceptional, qada-based district in the 1992 and 1996 elections.

Some argue that while Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt  continues to publicly oppose the governorate, he will secure a satisfactory share of seats in this arrangement, since he is able to secure some 50,000 votes, undisputably the biggest voting bloc in a Mount Lebanon electoral district.

One proposal is by Abdo Saad, a researcher with the Center for Consultation and Documentation, a research center close to Hizbullah. Saad asserted that debates over the size of the district are only touching “5 percent” of the issue, since the voting mechanism ­ introducing proportionality or qualification ­ is by far more important.

Saad said that applying proportionality was a must to respect the Cabinet’s own ministerial statement calling for a “just” electoral system.

He has suggested an “open-list” mechanism to the ministerial committee that he says would achieve proportional representation by allowing voters to choose as many candidates as they want for a district.

The two-step procedure adds the total votes cast and divides this sum by the number of seats in the district. Then, each list’s total votes are divided by this number, to produce each list’s share. The system prohibits individual candidacies.

Applying the mechanism to the 1996 polls in Beirut, would result in 12 seats for the list headed by former Premier Rafik Hariri, four for the Hoss list, and three for the Najah Wakim-Hizbullah alliance.

An alternative that he will submit, he said, would be to allow voters to vote only for a number of seats, roughly two-thirds, or prohibit lists from being complete, to allow for a margin of opposition discouraged by the current system.

Saad said that Hizbullah favored a proportional system, but felt that the country lacked an important constituency supporting the idea. “Thus, they’ve advocated a medium-sized district, larger than the qada but smaller than the governorate.”

“Proportional representation will hurt the big players, who want to control their districts, but it will also prevent someone like Hariri from sweeping Beirut,” said Saad, noting that the former premier is now spending huge sums of money on subsidizing tuition for students around the country in the run-up to next year’s polls.

While admitting the merits of Saad’s proposals, one supporter of the qualification system said that the lack of time and familiarity with proportional representation would mean the adoption of qualification.

Observers believe that qualification, in which a certain number of candidates qualify at the qada level before being chosen by the votes of the governorate, poses less of a shock in terms of results.

“Proportional representation could change up to one-third of the results in a district, while qualification would mean only the difference of a few seats,” one source said.

Election-law drafters are as yet undecided about the mechanism for qualification, namely whether a specific percentage should be used as a bench-mark, or whether a specific number of candidates per number of seats should qualify.

Meanwhile, the division of Mount Lebanon into two districts might appease both Jumblatt and Interior Minister Michel Murr but create problems for those who have called for “equality” among regions.

Saad said that one justification when the bill goes to Parliament could be that by creating northern Mount Lebanon (16 seats) and southern Mount Lebanon (19 seats), the districts would be roughly equal to Beirut’s 19, and stifle calls for dividing the capital in return.

 

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