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Report: Lebanon

Lebanese electoral reform stirs controversy

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 The Lebanese parliament will today vote on two proposed ideas for electoral reform ahead of an election scheduled for June. Tensions around this issue are running high, with the parliament deciding in a special three-day session what the voter system will be, as well as the system of districting. Two proposals are on the table to reform the system, and it is the so-called “Orthodox Law” that has proved controversial, as it would oblige every citizen to vote for a member of their own sect.

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Yet in a country where sectarianism has long fuelled tensions, maintaining a balance between democracy and identity is an ongoing issue.

Ziad Abs is a member of the Free Patriotic Movement party, the largest Christian party in the 8 March Alliance ruling bloc in the outgoing parliament, and who have strongly backed the Orthodox law.

The Free Patriotic Movement argue that a law forcing every citizen to vote for a member of their own sect would result in a fairer system, as it would be completely proportional.

Abs explains why:

“Effectively the parliament, especially this parliament, would have a true representation of all the ethnic groups in Lebanon. Let this parliament be like an establishing parliament. We are confident that if the coming parliament resulted from this law that no one will say, “I am not represented.”

The Free Patriotic Movement, as well as other supporters of the law, argue that the current system – in combination with the way voter districts are drawn up – means that Christians, who are spread throughout Lebanon, are often disenfranchised.

Abs maintains that while such a law sounds anti-democratic, it is a pragmatic solution in a country where the majority of votes are cast for sectarian reasons:

“We have to approach this the way it is. I believe that you cannot judge someone by who he prays to. But the fact is that the majority are still driven by this force, especially when the political clash is as big as it is right now. We have to admit that this is the situation, and we have to try to adapt, to eventually change it, but slowly.”

However, Christians in Lebanon are divided on the issue of the Orthodox law. The Lebanese Forces, Lebanon’s second largest Christian party, have opposed the law, however they declined repeated requests to be interviewed on the topic.

Abdel Salam Moussa is from the Future Movement party, the largest party in the opposition 14 March Alliance coalition.

The Future Movement, which is a party with a majority Sunni Muslim support, has opposed the law, arguing that it is both anti-democratic and unconstitutional, as Moussa explained:

“We are against the Orthodox Law because it contradicts the coexistence and the national charter that was agreed upon under the Taif agreement that ended the war in this country. It consecrates divisions that will lead to another civil war.”

Moussa is dismissive of the idea that each party’s support or opposition to the law is governed primarily by whether it could win them votes:

“The issue for us in the Future Movement is not about whether we lose or gain seats. We are a diverse movement and we can nominate 128 MPs to serve any district of Lebanon. Our problem goes beyond this. We already have the parliamentary majority but democracy is obstructed by the power of Hezbollah.”

The decisions made over the coming days will govern more than the electoral system for the next election – if the parliament fails to agree on a system of districting and voting, the election could be delayed.

With neighbouring Syria currently in crisis, some in Lebanon argue that the country should prioritise stability. But whether this means that an election should take place immediately is itself a matter of political opinion.

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