2022 Elections

MPs discussed new electoral law proposals for the 2022 vote — but change is likely to be elusive

MPs discussed new electoral law proposals for the 2022 vote — but change is likely to be elusive

(AFP/Joseph Eid)

BEIRUT — MPs met Wednesday in the latest skirmish over how the 2022 parliamentary elections will be conducted.

Two electoral law proposals were on the table, both pitched as routes to disbanding Lebanon’s sectarian political arrangement and answering a demand of the Oct. 17 mass uprising, which called for an overhaul of the dysfunctional system.

“More than 20 MPs gave their opinions on the proposals, and of course there were opposing voices” in the joint committee session, Deputy Parliament Speaker Elie Ferzli (FPM bloc/W. Bekaa-Rashaya) told L’Orient Today. “However, we hardly entered into any technical details.”

Ferzli adjourned the session after around an hour, without indication of how or when further discussions would proceed.

While the last electoral law introduced proportional representation for the first time in Lebanese history, it has been widely panned for its complexity and its failure to offer those outside the traditional political elite a real chance of winning.

On the surface the new proposals appear to make progress, with larger electoral districts to offer greater opportunities for voters to select candidates outside traditional or sectarian groups, independent electoral monitoring bodies, tighter campaign spending limits and quotas for female MPs.

However, some MPs have criticized the proposals as attempts to reshape the country’s sectarian makeup, while election experts view them as nothing more than efforts to shore up support from the sponsors’ traditional bases.

What are the new proposals?

The first law was submitted by former prime minister and current MP Najib Mikati, along with fellow Azm Movement MPs Ali Darwish and Nicolas Nahas.

It calls for the 15 electoral districts used in the 2018 elections to be replaced with five larger districts: Beirut, Mount Lebanon, north Lebanon, the Bekaa and south Lebanon.

Voters, who must vote in their hometown rather than their place of residence, would vote for a list of candidates within their larger electoral district. They would also be given the choice of two preferential votes: one within the smaller constituency that they are registered in and a second in another constituency within the larger electoral district — a further twist on one of the last elections’ most confusing elements.

This provision, according to Darwish, would mean that candidates must field electoral campaigns with a wider appeal, rather than targeting only their own constituencies.

“We need to give voters more flexibility and avoid politicians having a strong hold on their community,” he said.

However, the law does not seek to totally eliminate confessional considerations and will maintain the post-Taif sectarian distribution of seats, equally divided between Christians and Muslims.

The other draft law, presented by MPs Ibrahim Azar and Anwar El-Khalil, members of the Amal Movement’s parliamentary coalition, envisions a single electoral district covering the entire country, with no stipulations for sectarian representation.

Registered voters would also be provided with an electronic voting card that would allow them to vote at the nearest polling place, rather than their hometown. Forcing voters to travel back to their ancestral villages to cast their ballots has traditionally worked in favor of the sectarian political parties.

Alongside the election law, the Amal bloc MPs have proposed a draft law to establish a 46-member Senate, as stipulated by the Taif accords that brought Lebanon’s 15-year Civil War to an end.

The Saudi-moderated Taif agreement, as published in 1989, says that Parliament should be elected on a national, rather than a sectarian basis, and that “all the spiritual families shall be represented” in the Senate.

The Amal coalition’s draft law, Azar said, aims to ensure Parliament deals with regular issues of governance, while the Senate would rule on issues such as civil status, war and peace, and constitutional amendments.

“We are hoping that through these two laws, we can move from the current deadlock toward a better political life,” he said.

Maintaining the status quo

The proposals have been met with staunch opposition from the largest Christian parties, the Free Patriotic Movement and the Lebanese Forces, which both gained seats in the 2018 elections.

“Our position is clear,” said MP Georges Adwan (LF/Chouf) following Wednesday’s committee session. “There is a law that we all agreed on, and if elections take place, they will do so on this basis.”

The last elections were held following the introduction of a new electoral law, passed in 2017, which replaced a winner-takes-all system with a proportional voting system. Elections had been repeatedly postponed for more than four years as parties battled it out over the final form of the electoral law until it was eventually approved. Both new proposals keep the proportional system.

MP Alain Aoun (FPM/Baabda), rejected the new proposals as “a radical change in the political system,” saying there is “no consensus” to replace the existing law.

For Darwish, the reason for the Christian parties taking the lead on opposing new proposals is clear. “They have concerns about a change in Lebanon’s demographic makeup,” he said.

Lebanon has not held a nationwide census since 1932, when Christians were a small majority in the country. Evidence suggests that Muslim populations have since grown faster than Christian populations to the extent that they now constitute a majority.

MP Pierre Bou Assi (LF/Baabda) was explicit about his concerns that new electoral laws would alter the sectarian makeup of Parliament, writing on Twitter that if a new law was passed establishing only one electoral district, “the Christian role and representation would regress.”

“The Christian parties consider our proposals as a conspiracy against them,” said Azar, a Maronite.

Lawmakers from other parties were less definitive on their stances, but called for debate to remain civilized and avoid stoking tensions.

MP Mohammad Hajjar (Future/Chouf) told L’Orient Today that his party supports any development that would bring Lebanese law closer to the stipulations of the Taif Agreement and ensure the makeup of Parliament reflects the makeup of the Lebanese population.

However, he questioned the need for discussions on a new law while there is already a law that was agreed on by MPs, saying they only resulted in raising sectarian rhetoric in the country.

MP Ali Fayyad (Hezbollah/Marjayoun-Hasbaya) said from Parliament that his party was not totally satisfied with the current electoral law and could be open to amendments to the electoral districts, but that there was “no need for taut discussions on the issue.”

Hidden agenda

For Nasser Yassin, the newly appointed secretary-general of the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections, it will be nearly impossible to write a new law that will satisfy the demands of all political parties, “as everyone wants a law that will give them more political capital.”

While he admitted there are some positive elements of the new proposals, such as the inclusion of quotas for female MPs, he criticized the way with which electoral reform was being handled.

“There is potential for good discussion … but it shouldn’t be kept within Parliament,” Yassin said. “It needs to be opened up to other stakeholders, such as civil society groups.”

Kulluna Watani, a coalition of independent candidates in the 2018 elections, was only able to win one seat after the powerful electoral machines of the ruling parties proved too tough to beat.

“We cannot deny that we need to reform some issues with the existing law,” Yassin continued, citing the division of electoral districts in a way that cements sectarian divisions and the absence of a fully independent electoral commission as two of the major challenges.

“There are huge hurdles to achieving real democratic elections in Lebanon,” agreed Rabih El Chaer, a lawyer and advisor on electoral campaigns. “There is no real history of parties that are based on political programs rather than confessional systems.”

The parties proposing reforms to the law that would allegedly open up the political field for newcomers “have good slogans,” Chaer said. “But there is a hidden agenda for confessional parties to hold onto what they have.”

BEIRUT — MPs met Wednesday in the latest skirmish over how the 2022 parliamentary elections will be conducted.Two electoral law proposals were on the table, both pitched as routes to disbanding Lebanon’s sectarian political arrangement and answering a demand of the Oct. 17 mass uprising, which called for an overhaul of the dysfunctional system.“More than 20 MPs gave their opinions on the...