In less than a year from now, Lebanon is scheduled to hold its sixth legislative elections since the end of a civil war, but a consensus has yet to be reached on the law that will be adopted. According to Arda Ekmekji, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at the Beirut-based Haigazian University, a mixed electoral system of proportional and majoritarian representation would be the best option for Lebanese elections, but odds are it will not be considered. Ekmekji launched a policy paper commissioned by the Aspen Institute's U.S.-Lebanon Dialogue Program on "Confessionalism and Electoral Reform" at a roundtable discussion hosted at the Institute's Washington headquarters last Tuesday, July 17th.
The panel featured Leslie Campbell, Senior Associate and Regional Director, Middle East and North Africa (MENA) at the National Democratic Institute, Hassan Mneimneh, Senior Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund (GMF), and was moderated by Hussain Abdul-Hussain, Bureau Chief of Al Rai newspaper.
Ekmekji argued that confessionalism, the current system whereby each confession is allocated a specific number of seats in Parliament, is a dysfunctional and politically biased system. The geographic districts are typically carved according to political agendas, and they allow the one candidate with the lion's share of votes to win.
Ekmekji proposed adopting the Boutros law, which recommends implementing a mixed electoral system based on proportional and majoritarian representation, a voting age of 18, an independent commission to supervise elections, pre-printed ballots, a gender quota, non-resident voting, among other reforms. Despite the recommendations, all panelists agreed that no definite process will likely be adopted; instead, there will be an eleventh hour scenario similar to the one that unfolded in the aftermath of the May 2008 clashes when political consensus dictated adopting a tweaked version of the 1960 electoral law.
The GMF's Hassan Mneimneh argued that the Lebanese electoral system suffers from "existential, conceptual, and operational problems." According to Mneimneh, communitarianism has promoted vertical segmentation; the electorate population remains ill defined, and most Lebanese find themselves deeply entrenched in confessionalism and endorsing the political status-quo.
Although a proportionate system might not immediately do away with confessional allegiance, adopting such systematic reforms holds better promise than a more radical approach. "A non-confessional parliamentary system is only possible through a gradual process," Ekmekji noted.
The contention, however, is whether such structural changes are enough to "de-confessionalize" the system and change voting habits. Would a bicameral parliament, a proposal set forth by the Taef agreement, be enough to do so? Ekmekji clarified that bicameralism would be a transitional phase and emphasized the need to tailor a unique road map for reforms in Lebanon. She added that confessionalism is not the Leviathan some perceive it to be. Rather, the inherent problem with the system is the protection society offers to the rampant corruption within each confession.
For his part, Leslie Campbell expressed surprise that "there isn't more internal demand for a clean sweep, a fundamental change in Lebanon." Typically, he said, such communitarian and confessional differences in a country are addressed through the design of the political system - for example a bicameral model with a proportionally elected upper house. The goal is to build a viable and fair model for a country that Mneimneh rightly called "a defacto federation of communities". Such a system must enable healthy partisan competition similar to that Lebanon holds on the municipal level, said Mneimneh.
Another possible scenario for 2013, Ekmekji said, is adopting Interior Minister Marwan Charbel's proposed proportionate electoral law. This law adopts most reforms proposed in the Boutros law and more specifically what Ekmekji calls "the first and most important priority for electoral reform in Lebanon" - the pre-printed ballot.
Panelists agreed that adopting internationally recognized standards are crucial for the 2013 vote. Those would include equitable districting representation, an independent election commission, financial regulation, lowering the voting age, allowing non-resident voting, pre-printed ballots, and adequate security procedures.
In the absence of leadership and the preoccupation with the events in neighboring Syria, it is unlikely, however, for politicians to take up such reforms. To the dismay of some voters and electoral experts, the U.S. Administration has scaled back support for democracy and governance programs in Lebanon. This assistance, which often comes through organizations like NDI and the International Republican Institute (IRI), is crucial to supporting Lebanon's capacity in democratic and transparent governance, a crucial step towards lasting political reforms.