Early Parliamentary Elections: a breach ... Awaiting victory

Early Parliamentary Elections: a breach ... Awaiting victory

The hemicycle after the double explosion on August 4 at the port of Beirut. Photo from parliament's Flickr account

The announcement on Saturday by Hassan Diab that he intends to propose the holding of early legislative elections would have constituted the first real major breach in the defenses of the authority in place against the protest movement of October 17. One would be tempted to say that this would be the beginning of the end. But the road to victory is still long, winding and strewn with pitfalls, especially that Diab 's offer was short-lived as he was forced to resign two days later.

Michel Aoun is not Bechara el-Khoury and the Lebanon of 2020 bears no resemblance to the Lebanon of 1952, when the state enjoyed a certain level of respect in the world and was start-ing its "Thirty Glorious Years," and when its dominant political parties, which were not influ-enced ideologically, can be likened to boy scout organizations compared to their counterparts today.

Barring unforeseen circumstances, we should not therefore expect the current head of state to decide on his own to throw in the towel, as did his distant predecessor, who refused to allow blood to be shed because of a stubborn determination to remain in power. We should not ex-pect either that the dominant parties, starting with Hezbollah and the Aounist bloc, will bow freely in order to facilitate change or the entry of new forces into the parliament.

It was therefore through the weakest link in power, embodied today by the head of govern-ment, that the announcement of a "proposal" for early legislative elections was made. Until Sunday night, nothing was leaked concerning the position of the parties sponsoring the ministe-rial team in place on this issue, which was quickly overshadowed by the resignation of a num-ber of parliamentarians and ministers in response to the Beirut port disaster, the government's response to this tragedy and the anger that it has generated on the streets.

The Electoral Law

We remember how the request for early parliamentary elections made by the protesters dur-ing the major demonstrations last autumn was met with negative reaction by Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), even though the opposition parties, currently a minority in the legislature, had supported it. Most recently, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt called for holding such early elections, pleading for the adoption of a voting system based on a uninominal major-ity (one person, one vote), which is dear to the former head of the National Bloc Party, Ray-mond Eddé, and later taken over by his successor Carlos Eddé, then by Dory Chamoun's Nation-al Liberal Party and finally by Samy Gemayel's Phalange Party. Like the latter, Jumblatt raised the possibility of "de-denominationalizing" the seats to be filled, since the voting system in question requires that the constituencies are geographically as small as possible, so that the denominational issue ceases de facto to arise in the vast majority of constituencies (but not in all).

We are not there yet, of course, and Jumblatt's proposal is like a scarecrow intended mainly to frighten Hezbollah, for which the uninominal majority is nothing less than a satanic project against which it would be ready to do anything. Moreover, if it ends up rallying to the idea of holding early elections, Hezbollah would not hesitate for its part, with the support of the Amal movement and the pro-Syrian remnant parties, to put its own scarecrow back on the table for all the others – the single constituency, which is a veritable graveyard to the ambitions of Chris-tian, Druze and, to a lesser extent, Sunnite parties.

All this is to say that if a debate on the electoral law is held under these auspices, as is usually the case, there is a risk that not only the elections will not be held early, but will not even take place on their normally scheduled date, that is, in the spring of 2022. Hence the need for the protest movement, if it insists on the early elections – and it must do that - not to let itself be drawn into perpetual jousting and blockages. Have we forgotten that the last time the Lebanese parties engaged in a fight over the voting system, the legislative elections were delayed for five years (from 2013 to 2018)?

One Goal: Lowering the Eligibility Threshold

While the law adopted for the 2018 elections, based on restricted proportional representation, is far from ideal, and if it appears too complicated or tailored to certain groups, it nonetheless has the merit of existing and being in force. Moving towards early legislation on the basis of this law would save a lot of time and energy. It turns out, however, that this text contains a ma-jor loophole intended quite simply to prevent as much as possible independent forces from en-tering the parliament. It is the article setting the threshold for eligibility for what is known as the electoral coefficient.

This means that in order for a ticket of candidates to obtain at least one seat in a given constit-uency, its score must reach this electoral coefficient, a figure obtained by dividing the number of voters by the number of seats in that constituency. Thus, in a constituency with 100,000 vot-ers and 10 seats, the electoral coefficient will be 10,000. A ticket with 10,100 votes will neces-sarily have a seat, another with a score of 9,900 will have nothing at all... In this example, the eligibility threshold reaches 10 percent, which was, during the 2018 elections, the case in the Beirut I Constituency (Ashrafieh, Rmeil, Saifi, Medawar), where a civil society candidate, Paula Yacoubian, was able to make her way to parliament.

In most countries opting for proportional representation, a 10 percent threshold would already be considered prohibitive and unacceptable, yet in other Lebanese constituencies, the threshold can be as high as 18 per cent, due to demographics that result in more voters for fewer seats, such as in the Southern Lebanon II Constituency (Tyre-Zahrani). At this level, it is no longer an eligibility threshold, it is an insurmountable barrier that groups in society should seek to pull down if they intend to enter the parliament. Hence the need to focus the action of the protest movement in this direction.

However, we must be aware that it is the current parliament which is being asked to amend this article to allow new forces to be represented - the primary objective of the October 17 Revolution being precisely the renewal of the political class. It will therefore take a lot of pres-sure on the current large parliamentary blocs to get them to give up parts of their shares. And this pressure will have to be stronger than the resignations of lawmakers, who would be more or less in favor of this breakthrough, that have already started.

Failing to obtain the lifting of the eligibility threshold, the protest movement will have to settle for a simple redistribution of cards within the parliament, which cannot but be relative and mainly concern only the Christians. In this case, it can be assumed that, given the developments and the current state of the "strong presidency," the FPM risks losing to some extent its domi-nant position to other Christian parties. Would that be enough to push the parliamentary major-ity from one camp to the other? That remains to be seen.

On the other hand, a substantial lowering or even lifting of the eligibility threshold would allow new civil society groups and parties, if they do it right and if public opinion remain the same as it is today, to send 10, 15 or 20 members to the legislature. In a country like Lebanon, such scores are important and weigh heavily on the political life. The breach, then, would turn into a victory.

(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 10th au August)

The announcement on Saturday by Hassan Diab that he intends to propose the holding of early legislative elections would have constituted the first real major breach in the defenses of the authority in place against the protest movement of October 17. One would be tempted to say that this would be the beginning of the end. But the road to victory is still long, winding and strewn with pitfalls,...