by Ghassan Karam
It is not uncommon, in all fields and not only in politics, to neglect the root cause of a problem by concentrating instead on peripheral issues that under the best of circumstances will not make a major contribution to the solution for the problem at hand. The recent infatuation by the Lebanese politicians to present a new and reformed electoral system is an excellent case in point.
Let us be clear from the start. There is no such thing as a perfect electoral system anywhere in the world and furthermore there are , by most measures, vibrant responsive democracies that are purely majoritarian while others use a proportional system. This fact alone should put to rest the argument that what ails politics in Lebanon can be simply fixed by making some electoral changes from a system of plurality to one of proportionality. It is important to note also that although there are still more countries with a majoritarian system the proportionality camp has registered significant gains all over the world. A quick look at the map of the world would reveal that the Americas are predominantly majoritarians while Europe is the opposite, proportional. Many in Africa and Asia appear to be moving towards proportionality.
Another important point to emphasize is that the choice of a system is the ultimate political decision. Those in power are not to be expected to design a system that will weaken them, just the contrary the choice is probably motivated by pure selfish political gains that are hidden by claims of fairness , efficiency and equality. It is also to be noted that any system can be made fairer and more representative by other means such as ease of access to the vote,simple and open non discriminatory laws, ease and clarity of the nominating process, reasonable campaign finance policies that are vigorously enforced,availability of judicial avenues for settling legal challenges quickly and efficiently and last but not least accurate voter registration lists and an easy and accessible method for those living overseas to participate in the vote.
Based on the above it should be clear that the single most important failing of the current, as well as the proposed, Lebanese electoral system is not addressed. The bane of Lebanon is the sectarian allocation of official positions, elected and appointed. Sectarianism is discriminatory and is the single most important reform that needs to be adopted in Lebanese electoral politics. Another hugely important reform would be the adoption of an electoral system based on place of residence instead of the archaic, inefficient and burdensome current policy base on the registered place of birth. The act of voting should not require traveling for hours to a place that one hardly knows by interrupting their regularly scheduled affairs and incurring significant expenses.
Yet , we are faced with the possibility of having the Chamber of Deputies adopt a new proposed electoral system. What are its main features? The two most significant elements of the new proposal are the redistricting of the electoral map and the yardstick by which winners are declared. Lebanon is currently divided into 23 districts that would be shrunk into only 13 and instead of the majoritarianism the new law is based on proportionality. The sectarian allocation of the seats will not be affected, the Christians would still get their 64 MP’s and so would Moslems.
So what is proportional about this system if sectarianism is to be preserved? All what that means is that since winners do not automatically take all the seats then some of the losers will get to be represented. Ironically, proportionality is advocated usually to improve on diversity but in Lebanon the political system is already weak and fragmented and it is questionable whether what we need is more fragmentation. Proportionality in Lebanon would only weaken the already weak political parties and will end up in amplifying the religious fault lines when the country needs exactly the opposite. Lebanon, in my opinion, would be better served if the number of political parties will shrink substantially and confessionalism ceases to determine eligibility for office.
Then there is always the question of what is it that leads to more responsive government, is it party platforms or is it in the individual criteria of each legislature? In Lebanon, as well as the rest of the world, those who favour voting for political parties support proportional elections while those that believe that emphasis should be placed on the individual seeking political office support majoritarian small district elections.
Given the above brief description of where we are and what is the new proposal let us review very quickly the basic facts of the proposal:
Total voter registration (2009): 3,266,074 composed of about 60% Moslems and 40% Christians although half the 128 parliamentary seats are allocated to each religious group. This works out to be an average of 25516 registered voter per MP but in practice this is not the case. Bint Jbeil district has the highest number of voters per MP (>35,000) followed by Akar (>32,000) while Jbeil , Kisrwan has only about 20,500 per MP followed by Rashia with essentially the same number of registered voters per MP.
The following is the list of the suggested 13 districts and an estimate of the registered voters in each , based on the 2009 lists:
NORTH MP Registered Voters/MP Expected Victors
Akar environs 10 32,200 March 14
Tripoli environs 8 24,500 March 14 ??
Zogarta,Kora environs 10 23,500 March 14
Zahle environs 7 22,500 ????????????
Rashia/West Bekaa 6 20,500 March 14 ???
Baalbeck/Hermel 10 25,600 March 8
Sidon/Tyre 12 29,800 March 8
Bint Jbeil/ Nabatiyeh 11 35,000 March 8
Beirut I(Achrafeih/Saifi..) 9 21,700 March 14 ???
Beirut II(Ras Beirut…) 10 25,300 March 14
Baabda/Metn 14 23,000 March 8
Jbeil/Kesrwan 8 20,600 March 8 ???
Chouf/Aley 13 23,100 March 14
It is evident that the redistricting was done in order to improve the chances of March 8 and weaken those of March 14. The most obvious is the total elimination of the Sidon vote by including it with an area that would ensure a March 8 victory by a large margin. Practically the same thing, but to a smaller extent, was done to the Metn area by merging it with Baabda a much stronger March 8 district. The same is true of the Jbeil Kisrwan area which was created to strengthen the Aounists. Another significant development is that of practically neutralizing Zahle , Beirut I and even Tripoli. The 2009 vote also makes it clear that the March 8 wins, especially in the South would be so overwhelming that it would be difficult for the opposition to get any representation even under a proportional system. That is not the case for the March 14 areas where the wins will be comfortable but where the opposition will make some gains under the new formula. Taking all the above into consideration it is my overall estimate that March 14 is assured of clear victories 39 seats while March 8 about 51. The 38 remaining seats of of essentially Zahle, Beirut I, Tripoli, Rashia and Jbeil would probably be slightly in favour of March 14, say 20 for March 14 and 20 for March 8. This would lead to a 128 seat parliament composed of 69 March 8 and 59 March 14. March 14 could upset these calculations through decisive victories in Tripoli, Beirut I and Zahle.