Lebanon News

A noisy electoral debate, but is anyone listening?

MP Ahmad Fatfat arrives at the Parliament for a subcommittee meeting, Friday, Jan. 11, 2013. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

BEIRUT: It took weeks of negotiations and a few VIP suites at a five-star hotel for the parliamentary subcommittee to relaunch talks on a new electoral law.

Since it resumed meeting last week, television stations and newspapers have covered every development, from the first 200 meter walk to Parliament from the hotel where some of the committee members are staying as a security precaution, to Speaker Nabih Berri’s suggestion of a hybrid law that would see MPs elected through both proportional representation and winner-takes-all systems.

But even with front page headlines and talk of a vote in the subcommittee next week, many Beirutis told The Daily Star Thursday that they aren’t following the electoral law debate, while those who are keeping up with the discussions are largely unsatisfied with the choices currently on the table.

“I think proportional representation in five large districts would be best. But the problem is that we are splintered demographically,” said Ismael, sitting at a cafe in Hamra. “There are areas that are home to just Shiites or Sunnis. If there’s a small Christian village nearby, their votes won’t count.”

None of the proposals under discussion matches the 28-year-old’s ideal system, but he had especially strong views on the Orthodox Gathering’s draft law, under which each of the country’s sect would elect its own MPs.

“It is pure sectarianism,” said Ismael. “It would take us back to 1975, when we’re looking for a way to get religion out of politics.”

Despite support from Hezbollah, Amal, the Free Patriotic Movement, the Lebanese Forces and Kataeb Party, the Orthodox proposal has garnered much criticism.

Ismael said he respects a number of politicians who are in a party not affiliated with his sect. But if the Orthodox draft law is passed, he wouldn’t be able to vote for these MPs.

Regardless of the outcome, however, he doesn’t plan to take part.

“I never vote. I take my parents, drop them off and have a cigarette.”

Down the street, Hiba echoed Ismael’s assessment of the Orthodox Gathering’s proposal.

“It’s a bad idea. We are divided already and it would only divide us more,” the 30-year-old accountant said. Ultimately though, she doesn’t think new legislation to replace the 1960 law will have an impact – positive or negative – on the country.

“I’m not planning to vote because I think it’s useless,” she explained. “Older generations care, but we’ve given up on politics. We’d rather go out, go dancing, have fun.”

Hiba’s coworker, Dina, 23, said she would be voting in the parliamentary election scheduled for June – the first since she’s reached voting age – but her ballot would be blank.

“I will vote with a white paper: no one deserves my vote,” she said.

Across town, near Sassine, Sami Kabbabe admitted he hadn’t been following the discussion on the vote law.

“I haven’t been watching it yet. There are still months before the election,” the 27-year-old said.

“We used to follow people and politics but not anymore, we don’t care. Now we only want peace,” he added, looking to a coworker for agreement.

Kabbabe, who volunteered that he was Christian and wasn’t planning to vote, said the Orthodox Gathering proposal could lead to sectarian tension, but he understood the reasoning behind it.

“Lebanon is that way: everyone is connected to their religion.”

In the middle of bustling Aisha Bakkar, Samir Jalloul was busy selling phone credit, but eager to weigh in on the electoral proposals.

“We have been listening to the debate about the laws,” he said, gesturing toward his colleagues in a cellphone store.

Describing the debate as a tug-of-war between parties, Jalloul was at first dismissive of all the draft laws.

“None of them are good for Lebanon, they’re only good for the deputies,” he said, listing off pressing concerns that wouldn’t be affected by the law: “water, electricity and schools.”

But it soon emerged that the 50-year-old favored the Orthodox Gathering’s proposal, at least for the upcoming elections.

“Here in Lebanon, everything is by religion. Believe me, it’s how it works,” Jalloul said. “Just for this time, though.”

While he thinks proportional representation would be better in principle, he added, “Not here, not now.”

The Cabinet’s proposal, which would divide the country into 30 districts under a proportional representation system, doesn’t go far enough for Kaspar Derderian.

“The solution, in a nutshell, is: Lebanon as one district with proportional representation and without confessional distinctions,” the 79-year-old lawyer said, his answer fired off without a second thought.

“Lebanon is not yet united as a nation and this is the only way to realize one nation,” he explained as he looked up from a newspaper.

At a bookstore near the Cola roundabout, Badira, 40, was leaning against the counter, happy to say that she didn’t know much about the electoral law discussions.

“I haven’t been watching much. I don’t care about it,” she said. “I’ve decided not to vote this year because it’s just disgusting what’s happening now.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 18, 2013, on page 3.

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