Will Lebanon’s new electoral law end the stalemate?

A new draft law for legislative elections staves off another political crisis in Lebanon.

Lebanon Elections
The new legislation will replace the existing plurality voting system and reduce the number of electoral districts [Dalati Nohra/Reuters]

A new electoral law is expected to be ratified by Lebanon’s parliament on Friday, paving the way for the first parliamentary elections in eight years. 

On Wednesday, ministers announced that Lebanon will be holding the long-delayed legislative elections in May 2018 after the country’s cabinet approved a new electoral law, staving off a fresh political crisis that threatened to leave the country without a parliament.

The move will also end a stalemate that saw the country’s parliament extend its tenure twice.

Current members of parliament were elected in 2009 for what was meant as a four-year term, but became protracted as key political figures disagreed on various proposals for fear of losing parliamentary seats. 

Parliamentary elections were scheduled to take place last month, but with MPs unable to decide on an electoral law, the country drifted towards a political vacuum that threatened to unravel the political deal that brought Michel Aoun into office in October last year.

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Prime Minister Saad Hariri touted the agreement as a historic achievement, saying, “This is the first time the Lebanese sit together and agree on legislation in a positive atmosphere”.

The new legislation will replace the existing plurality voting system with proportional representation and reduce the number of electoral districts, among other changes.

Aoun hailed the draft law as a “great achievement”, adding that the current plurality vote system does not provide for just representation.

“Today, we have reached a political agreement between political factions that needs to be applied to constitutional institutions,” said Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, in a press conference on Tuesday after rival political parties finally agreed on the contentious voting law.

The foreign minister said the new draft law has done justice to Lebanon’s minorities and will “greatly improve representation”, but vowed that one day Lebanese Christians would be able to elect all of their 64 deputies.

The current electoral law – often referred to as the “1960 law” – is sectarian-based. Designed to reduce inter-sectarian competition, the law grants an allotted number of parliamentary seats to different religious sects in each district. However, candidates in a particular constituency must gain a plurality of the total vote regardless of their confession in order to be elected.

With the absence of an up-to-date census since 1932 and with the country undergoing various demographic shifts, the voting law was deemed unfair and non-representative of the sectarian composition of districts today.

In a country that officially recognises 18 different religious sects, most political parties agreed on the need to reform the law, but disagreed over what system should replace it.

The current electoral law is designed to minimise sectarian strife in Lebanon [Aziz Taher/Reuters]
The current electoral law is designed to minimise sectarian strife in Lebanon [Aziz Taher/Reuters]

The main Christian party, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), which was founded by Aoun, has long wanted to redraw constituencies so that more of the Christian parliamentary seats are exclusively decided by Christian voters, according to Reuters.

Bassil, the leader of the party and the president’s son-in-law, proposed drafting a law that merges the plurality vote system with the proportional representation system – a move that was seen by some parties as an attempt to alter the Taif Accord.

The country’s current political system was created after a 15-year civil war that ended with the Saudi-negotiated 1989 Taif Accord. Under the terms of this agreement, parliament’s 128 seats are divided equally among Muslims and Christians, reinforcing the consociational formula of the 1943 National Pact, which stipulates that the country’s president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of parliament a Shia Muslim – a unique arrangement in the region.

The Taif Accord defined the reform mechanism for Lebanon, including the voting system, Dhafer Nasser, the secretary-general of the Progressive Socialist Party, told Al Jazeera earlier this year.

“If some [politicians] want to reform the Taif Accord, then they have to reveal that to the Lebanese people,” said Nasser. “The constitution applies to everybody and we have to abide by it,” said Nasser. “We are not against [having] a new electoral law, under the condition that it is fair for everybody.”

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In April, the president suspended parliamentary activities for one month to block legislators from extending parliament’s term a third time and give them more time to agree on an electoral law.

Aoun had previously declared that he preferred heading towards a parliamentary vacuum to holding another election based on the “1960 law”, under which the 2009 elections were held, and threatened to use his executive power to do so.

Parliament elected Aoun, an ally to Hezbollah movement, as president last year, ending a political deadlock that had left the country without a head of state since May 2014.

Now, rival political parties have finally agreed on an electoral law whose efficiency in maintaining Lebanon’s sectarian-based political balance remains to be seen. The draft law does not address some of the previously proposed reforms, such as allocating a quota for women, allowing army soldiers to vote and reducing the voting age from 21 to 18. 

In addition, under the recent agreement, the current parliament’s term, which expires on June 20, will be extended once again, only for 11 months this time, to give authorities time to prepare for the 2018 elections under the new rules.

It will take at least seven months to prepare for this election, said Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk. Information Minister Melhem Riachy said the elections are likely to take place on May 6, 2018. 

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies