Lebanon, Reform

Bicameralism Issues I: Would a Senate Only Serve to Entrench Confessionalism?

houseoflordsDue to considerations of length and format, my article about Lebanese bicameralism for The National was limited to making the simple case that establishing a senate would be better than not establishing a senate. As we’ve seen from the ensuing discussion, many different objections to this argument can and should be raised. What I’d like to do, therefore, is to have a short series of posts – interspersed with updates on the cabinet formation which is just hurtling along at breakneck speed – on different aspects of the problem, and open them up for discussion.

Here are the main objections, as I see them:

  1. A legislative body dedicated to protecting confessional interests only serves to entrench confessionalism.
  2. Replacing the current parliament with a non-confessional, one-man-one-vote system will allow some groups to dominate the government in an undemocratic fashion.
  3. A senate empowered to be anything more than a weak or purely symbolic body will maintain the legislative gridlock that paralyzes the current system.

In this post, I’d like to begin with the first objection. As Joe M. wrote in the previous discussion:

“I still don’t understand why you think adding an additional legislative body would be more effective at protecting minority rights than a simple law that explicitly protects minorities in “the realm of religious affairs: personal status laws, marriage, citizenship, etc…” Something in the realm of the American “bill of rights” for the protection of minority rights in Lebanon could accomplish your goals without the addition of a new legislative chamber…”

I feel that a critical part of this discussion — which is often simply taken for granted — is the question of what “confessional interests” need to be protected in the first place. Therefore, by way of approaching this objection, I would challenge readers to answer the following four questions.

  1. What are “confessional interests” anyway?
  2. How does the current system provide an effective and necessary check against inter-sect domination?
  3. Are “confessional interests” just a smokescreen used by political parties that have built up identities as protectors of sectarian communities?
  4. Is there a better way of protecting the rights of minority communities without introducing a bicameral system?
Moses stares down from the frontispiece of the U.S. Senate.

Moses stares down from the frontispiece of the U.S. Senate.

One of the best ways of approaching these questions is to imagine that Lebanon scrapped its political system altogether, and moved to hold elections using a new electoral law with the following features: no confessional quotas in a unicameral parliament (i.e. one chamber, not two); districts with an equal number of registered voters; a system of proportional representation or a mixed proportional-majoritarian system (like in the Boutros draft law); no requirements governing the confessional background of the key executive posts (President, Prime Minister, deputy Prime Minister, Speaker, deputy Speaker).

On top of this, let’s imagine that there were various constitutional reforms passed to give the legislative branch increased oversight over the Council of Ministers, and to compel the enactment of legislation in a timely fashion so that the government wouldn’t remain bogged down in gridlock all the time. In short, we’re talking about a non-confessional unicameral system with a variety of procedural reforms aimed at improving legislative efficacy and electoral law transparency/fairness.

How, if at all, would such a system threaten the rights of confessional communities? The floor is yours.
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26 thoughts on “Bicameralism Issues I: Would a Senate Only Serve to Entrench Confessionalism?

  1. When you’re designing a political system, you need to think not only about the electoral system, but also about the ways in which political groups (e.g. parties) can take shape in order to seek power in that structure. Would changing the system of parliamentary representation be enough to eliminate confessional politics, or would some other changes be needed in order to favour the creation of political groups with no confessional basis?

    Since religious affiliations tend to be passed down from parents to children, the persistence of confessional politics is probably closely linked to the existence of political and economic dynasties. On the one hand, religion can provide a cover of legitimacy for nepotism and the inheritance of power: it sounds much better to say that you’re defending the interests of your religious community than to say that you’re defending the wealth and power of your family. On the other hand, the use of kinship ties to bind together a political group makes it very likely the resulting group will have a confessional character. In order to render these mechanisms inoperative and to favour the creation of other sorts of political groups, one could, for example, think about changing the laws governing the creation and financing of political organisations, e.g. to prevent the concentration of political power within families. A reform of inheritance tax could also help weaken economic dynasties and thus their ability to buy political power.

    People’s ability to form groups also depends on their ability to identify relevant characteristics that they share with others. It would therefore be worth thinking about designing regular statistical surveys of the population (including, but not limited to, a census) to reveal socioeconomic characteristics — and thus social interests shared by different sections of the population — that could justify the recognition of other sorts of political groups, e.g. the poor, those with the least access to services such as education or health care, or those who live in the most polluted areas.

    Posted by Benjamin Geer | August 16, 2009, 12:31 pm
  2. QN,
    First, without getting to your 4 questions, let me try to address what seems to be your primary motivation for proposing bicameralism.

    From your previous posts it appears that you want to remove explicitly sectarian discussion from the current Lebanese parliament. And you want to do so by depositing explicitly sectarian agendas in a new legislative body. Your hope is that this structure would then provide for a more non-sectarian functioning of the day-to-day government because the sectarian tug-of-war would then be quarantined. You like the idea of an additional legislative body because you think that parties losing power under the current system will be willing as long as their power is protected by the new legislature… And your hope is that establishing the precedent of proportional representation will be infectious over time and eventually transform the lebanese system into a more pure representational system. or something of this nature. correct?

    But my point, as you referenced above is that you are wholly too optimistic about the benefits of changing governing systems. If there is one bright and shining theme of comparative law, it is that people can fuck up any system you put under their control, and that power interests dominate regardless of the system in place. Unicameralism, bicamerialism, tricameralism, powerful judiciary, weak executive, weak legislators… the list goes on and on. In the end, a system is not worth much more than the paper it’s written on, because various actors will have legitimately different desires for its function, and devise different interpretations of how it should function, leading to vastly different outcomes depending on who decides…

    That said, if your trouble with the lebanese form of “democracy” is the “breakneck speed” at which it addresses legitimate problems, then i highly suggest that an additional layer of legislative bureaucracy is not the best way to solve it. By instituting an additional chamber of parliament, you are largely establishing another method to put the breaks on legislation. When you think to yourself that the lebanese senate would have restricted powers, and would be limited in scope to “confessional issues”, you are forgetting just how easy it is to turn that around on its head.

    For example, who decides that an issue is confessional in nature? The representatives of a branch of the Shia community might think that national defense is a confessional issue, as they are primarily at risk from zionist attack. The Maronite representative may think that education is a confessional issue. The Sunni rep might think that economic development is confessional…. In reality every major political issue has some confessional dimension that can obstruct the progress of the legislation you are hoping to free from this dynamic. The confessional issues that raise their ugly head in today’s lebanese parliament are often legitimate power issues, and they would only be transferred (and likely expanded) if there was an additional forum for them to do battle within. Like cutting off the head of a dragon, only to have two heads sprout up in its place.

    Why not establish religious courts like they have in Canada? Why not write laws that explicitly provide rights to communities (like the American Bill of Rights), or why not empower ideas over identities by proposing that only policy platforms are voted upon (and not parties or candidates)? All of those proposals would do more to break down confessionalism in the political system then to create an additional branch that is explicitly confessional. These are better because a legislature has a higher place in the “democratic” framework than laws, or lower courts, or other such non-lawmaking bodies (even though you say you don’t want your additional “house” to be explicitly lawmaking). You would have to give a new branch significant power to get those parties who would lose power in the current parliament to agree. And doing so would just give the problem a chance to grow like a cancer, infecting both branches of the legislature.

    Posted by Joe M. | August 16, 2009, 2:09 pm
  3. Joe,

    First of all, why must you insist on jumping the gun? 🙂

    I think I’ve explained my motivations for promoting bicameralism fairly clearly. The current system is neither functional nor just. It allows the government to be brought down by a political party on the basis of confessional interests, whether or not there is any actual “confessional” content to the disputed policies. Similarly, it allows everyday legislation to be stalled and frozen according to the same principle of confessional consensus and power-sharing.

    If you can think of a better system than a bicameral legislature — that is both effective and realistic — then please suggest it. I personally don’t understand how your proposal of a “Bill of Rights” is going to solve the problem that you bring up regarding “who gets to decide what is confessional?” I also think that the whole notion of voting on platforms rather than candidates is completely unclear. How would this work? Are you proposing some kind of direct democracy? Referendums? I suppose that would be fine, but “electing platforms” is far too slippery for my taste.

    Again, what I’m after is a more functional system, in which the litmus test of what constitutes a threat to a confessional community is much clearer and has its own mechanisms of resolution.

    As long as people believe that the state does not represent them fully, they are going to seek protection from their own mini-states. This is highly inefficient and destabilizing. This argument applies both to Shiites who know that their votes count far less than Christians in the Metn, as well as to Christians who regard with frustration the Shiite community’s representative (Hizbullah) making decisions on their behalf regarding the choice of war or peace.

    The kind of debate I’m looking for — in this post — is over the issue of what counts as a confessional interest. I want to hear people make the argument that reform in the electricity, education, defense, telecom, refugee, etc. sectors IS or is NOT a confessional issue. Don’t say that such-and-such an area COULD be construed as a confessional issue. Make the case.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | August 16, 2009, 3:04 pm
  4. QN,
    While I’m still uncertain about the utility of creating more jobs for politicians, I give props to anyone trying to argue for a change in Lebanon. Us lebs excel at shooting down new ideas. Its how we make conversation.

    I liked the article in the National, btw. It edged me closer to your view of things.

    I would just like to give my own answer to: what are ‘confessional interests’?

    1. The right of a citizen not to be discriminated against based on their confessional status. I’m thinking of government programs that benefit one sect over others, or ignore the needs of a minority group.

    2. The right of minority communities to maintain their way of life. For instance, imagine if Muslims vote to ban alcohol, or impose Sharia law? Personally, I think this unlikely, but people aren’t going to take my word for it.

    I think these are the only legitimate concerns. You have others that I would rather be swept away than maintained:

    1. The interests of the various religious establishments in maintaining their control over births, weddings, and funerals. There’s a lot of money to be made there.

    2. The interests of the political parties who create sectarian walls to maintain their monopoly on their electors, and use the language of fear to persuade people to vote for them.

    3. The interests of our multiple foreign backers who understand the principle of divide and conquer, and wish to promote one sectarian group (their local agents) over others.

    Posted by RedLeb | August 16, 2009, 3:13 pm
  5. RedLeb!

    Keefak habibi. Thanks for answering the (first) question. You get a gold star.

    Anybody else?

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | August 16, 2009, 3:16 pm
  6. Is bicameralism the issue as much as how election campaigns are financed, and who is allowed, or enabled, to seek office? How can you protect (economic) minority interests without taking steps to equalise financial access to office.

    Posted by j anthony | August 16, 2009, 4:20 pm
  7. Ok QN, your 4 questions:

    1. What are “confessional interests” anyway?
    -Basically any issue can be a confessional interest. And this is because there is a positive and negative aspect to an interest. In the USA, for example, affirmative action in education is a “confessional interest” for African Americans. But on the flip side of this coin, many in the majority consider affirmative action to be “reverse discrimination”.

    That said, my list of confessional interests would be rather long. Primarily because i think that what constitutes a “confessional interest” has a lot to do with prevailing conditions. Education, employment, defense, purely religious questions, civil legal arrangements, poverty, distribution of political power, tourism, international relations, distribution of wealth… and many others are examples of “confessional interests”. These things become less confessional as society becomes less confessional (for example, the more African Americans have access to higher education, the less affirmative action is a confessional issue for them).

    2. How does the current system provide an effective and necessary check against inter-sect domination?
    -The current system provides an absolute standard for the level of inter-sect domination allowed. Thus, when an issue is strictly sectarian, the current lebanese system makes it particularly hard for any one sect to dominate and push their agenda through.

    3. Are “confessional interests” just a smokescreen used by political parties that have built up identities as protectors of sectarian communities?
    -Confessional interests are a mix between a smoke screen and they also represent a legitimate expression of they way politics affects the different identities of people and communities.

    4. Is there a better way of protecting the rights of minority communities without introducing a bicameral system?

    There are many better ways, in my opinion. I have mentioned a few options above. And I will not totally rehash that here, because i expect there to be many opportunity to do so later. But that said, a “bill of rights” type option would be a way to do so. Through a “bill of rights” you could empower the bureaucracy (which, ideally, is not confessional) rather than add a new political body. Another alternative that i suggested above was to vote on platforms (or referendums) rather (or as a supplement to) than political parties/personalities.

    Posted by Joe M. | August 16, 2009, 4:34 pm
  8. I think we can be helped perhaps by looking at other States where there is a simple proportional or First Past The Post system and see how that protects communities of interest.

    1. How many African Americans have been represented in the Senate over the last century? How many in the House? How has that lack of inclusion impacted on policies in America?

    2. How do the indigenous Ainu of Japan fare in terms of representation in the Japanese Houses of Parliament, or indigenous Australians or Canadians in their Houses of Parliament.

    3. So I’d ask, realistically, if Libanon moved to a simple one-man-one-vote system – let’s say a single electorate with PR voting – or alternatively a First Past The Post like in Britain or the USA with small electorates – what would happen?

    In the first case, in the first election, we would have perhaps a Shiia-dominated party getting 35 per cent of the seats; a Maronite-other Christian party getting similarly; and a Sunni-led party getting 25 per cent. If the threshold was 10 percent, that would be it.

    In a small electorate First Past The Post voting system, there would be strong competition between AMAL and Hizbuallah for the east and south electorates; Future would win the three big cities of Tripoli, Beirut and Saida; and there would be intense competition in the Mountain between FPM/Marada and LF/Kataeb/Edde/Ahrar.

    Would that help heal “confessionalism” or inflame it?

    I think the answer would depend on how the winners of the system behaved upon their victory.

    If they behaved like they have in the U.S.A. over the past century, then it is unlikely the loser-communities in Lebanon would accept it without resorting to guns and foreign support.

    My own view is that were Libanon to move down this direction, then there would need to be a Senate specifically to explicitly acknowledge the mosaic of the nation and to protect each and every community from the smallest to the biggest – but most expecially to protect representation for the smallers with some defined rights like to delay legislation or perhaps to even bloc legislation done without consensus.

    I don’t think we should get too hard on Lebanon. Syria, Iraq, Palestine-Israel, Jordan, Iran, Egypt – all of these places have significant diversity but in all of them only one group has almost all power.

    That isn’t because, I think, Lebanese are more “sectarian” – it is just that in Lebanon doesn’t try by force to stifle the complex nature of the society.

    Posted by Sofia | August 17, 2009, 4:27 am
  9. J, Joe, and Sofia

    I will respond to your points later tonight… Busy now. Thanks for writing.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | August 17, 2009, 1:49 pm
  10. Joe

    I disagree with your response to question 1.

    What you are describing as “confessional interests” are actually much broader. They are what is referred to in American political discourse as “special interests”.

    Sure, any issue can be turned into a “special interests” issue if it has a bearing on the livelihood of some subset of the population, whether that subset is defined religiously (Catholics, Muslims, Jews) or racially (Caucasians, Asians, American Indians), professionally (dairy farmers, steel workers, teachers), etc.

    What I mean by a “confessional interest” is an issue that is of specific relevance to certain people by virtue of their membership in a particular sect. Outlawing alcohol (on religious grounds) is a confessional issue. Reforming the electricity sector is not. Educational reform may be a confessional issue to some extent, but surely transportation is not.

    The fact that certain parts of Lebanon get less electricity than others has nothing to do with whether the people who live in those parts are Christians or Sunnis or Shiites. It has everything to do with their economic class, and their quotient of wasta.

    Therefore, why should electricity reform be treated as a confessional issue?

    What you seem to be saying is that we should treat the various confessional communities in Lebanon as special interest groups. Create a Bill of Rights that assures basic religious freedoms, and then allow people to lobby for anything above and beyond those freedoms.

    Is that correct?

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | August 17, 2009, 5:09 pm
  11. J Anthony

    I agree with you. This is why we need a fair electoral law. See Benedetti Berti’s excellent article over at Mideast Monitor.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | August 17, 2009, 5:22 pm
  12. QN,
    I am not really proposing any one option as the solution. Though, I generally think that empowering the bureaucracy can help reduce the political tension created by “confessional issues”. (assuming that there is some baseline public faith in the fairness of the bureaucracy)

    I think creating another political body, even if you are trying to limit their scope to only “confessional issues”, will inevitably just add another political layer to the “confessional issue”.

    And, I don’t think there is much of a difference between “confessional interests” and “special interests”. You could easily use the term “religious issues” and create an empowered Ministry of Religious Harmony, or something like that (and, for argument’s sake, say that it worked excellently)… and it would not solve the problem of confessionalism in lebanon.

    (if you get my point. I.e. the problem of confessionalism in Lebanon is more a power dynamic question, than an a question about actual inter-religious harmony.)

    Posted by Joe M. | August 17, 2009, 8:39 pm
  13. Hmmm. Ok, well we’ll have to continue this conversation in the next installment of the senate series, which will be on demography and democracy, to some extent.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | August 17, 2009, 8:42 pm
  14. If the overall objective is to end the confessional system, I think one key element to get there and in order to have legitimacy to the process is to have a national referendum about it in a series of well prepared questions that could also includes the formation of a senate.

    If the outcome is positive (which I think it would be), then it would be a powerfull tool to fend off the politicians nay sayers, as the people would have spoken.

    Just an idea to get the ball rolling.

    Posted by Ras Beirut | August 17, 2009, 9:26 pm
  15. QN,

    Thanks for the link to Berti’s article in the Monitor. Very helpful.

    Posted by j anthony | August 18, 2009, 7:50 am
  16. This is so naive. The Lebanese people are sectarian. The system is a reflection of that, not a cause of it. Even without confessional quotas, the political outcome would very likely be the same. The sad truth is that if it weren’t for the sectarian nature of Lebanon, there simply wouldn’t be a Lebanon.

    Posted by mobazz | August 18, 2009, 1:19 pm
  17. Mobazz

    Do you have evidence for the claim that system is a reflection and not a cause? Furthermore, the argument is not that the system is a cause, but that it works to entrench not alleviate confessionalism.

    A full third of Lebanese — according to a poll conducted by Jawad Adra — do not particularly identify as members of one sect or another, which is equivalent to the same proportion in most other Arab countries.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | August 18, 2009, 1:33 pm
  18. Well, how were the Lebanese before 1943? Sectarianism did not start with the establishment of the political system. The Maronites and Druzes have been murdering each other for centuries. It’s the mistrust and animosity among the Lebanese that has made the current system possible. As for the full third of Lebanese not identifying themselves as members of one sect or another, i frankly don’t buy that.

    Posted by mobazz | August 18, 2009, 5:53 pm
  19. However, I agree with you that the system does entrench confessional ism. Where i disagree with you is on your focus. At the root of the problem is not the system itself, it’s the people. The Lebanese like to blame everything and everyone but themselves. They never take responsibility for the terrible state of their country.

    Posted by mobazz | August 18, 2009, 6:04 pm
  20. There is an interesting article in the Daily Star today on the 10-15 million Christians in Egypt, representing 12 to 15 percent of the population.

    There are no seats guaranteed for Christian representation in Egypt – I think Lebanon’s parliamentary system is far superior and sustainable.


    Today also reports from south of the border, Palestine – the poor citizens who live in the village of Amra -a minority that can expect harsh tactics by the Israeli army because they belong to a racial minority.

    Lebanon’s system is better than the endless disaster and war that the model to the south offers.

    Posted by Sofia | September 1, 2009, 7:20 am
  21. Sofia, there are no seats reserved for Catholics or Protestants in Switzerland, but they don’t have any of the problems you mention.

    Posted by Benjamin Geer | September 1, 2009, 7:43 am
  22. Hi Benjamin:

    But in Switzerland there are indeed structures to ensure that everyone is represented in their areas.

    The Middle East is to me like one big Switzerland – each geographic state has multiple nationalities or self-identified communities – 2 nations claim Palestine; Lebanon has 18 communities, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Jordan – the question for me how to move toward greater democracy and representativeness in steps, small steps that are inclusive and make individuals and communities feel safe.

    For me it is completely wrong that up to 15 million Egyptians that will very often identify as copt do not have guaranteed representation in parliament (even accepting that the Egyptian parliament is nothing but a debating chamber with no sovereignty).

    [Switzerland made up Germans, French, Italians, and Rhaeto-Romansch. Over the centuries, whenever conflicts have arisen between these language groups, and between Catholics and Protestants, the Swiss have resolved the conflict by allowing each of the warring groups to govern themselves. Thus single cantons have divided into half-cantons, new cantons have been formed and border communes have opted to leave one canton to join another. In this way the Swiss have developed a system which permits people of different languages, cultures, religions and traditions to live together in peace and harmony. This makes the Swiss system particularly well suited to ethnically-divided countries]

    Posted by Sofia | September 2, 2009, 4:39 am
  23. Benjamin:

    I wish Lebanon could be more like Switzerland, may be in a few hundred years.

    What I think states like Jordan, Syria, Egypt and Iraq and Palestine/Israel, all share is that they are multi ethnic diverse, but in each state one ethnic group has near-monopoly of all political, economic and cultural power.

    Lebanon in that sense is in my view on much better, solid foundations – Lebanon’s neighbours, to varying degrees, have their conflicts ahead of them.

    For me it is completely wrong that 10-15 million Egyptian Copts have no guaranteed representation in the parliament (even accepting that it is just a non-sovereign talking shop). No way can the Egytian system hope to survive much into the century ahead – it is so backward and unrepresentative.

    Also, Switzerland does indeed have a framework for guaranteed communal representation.

    [Switzerland, made up different ethnic groups – Germans, French, Italians, and Rhaeto-Romansch – has over the centuries, whenever conflicts have arisen between these groups, or between Catholics and Protestants,resolved the conflict by allowing each of the warring groups to govern themselves.

    Thus single cantons have divided into half-cantons, new cantons have been formed and border communes have opted to leave one canton to join another. In this way the Swiss have developed a system which permits people of different languages, cultures, religions and traditions to live together in peace and harmony. This makes the Swiss system particularly well suited to ethnically-divided countries.]

    Posted by Sofia | September 2, 2009, 4:50 am
  24. There are many examples that Lebanon can maybe learn from around the world.

    In New Zealand, the indigenous population is guaranteed seats in the parliament equivalent to the proportion of indigenous people that choose to define themselves as indigenous – and they are free to choose to move onto the “general” roll if they want – and many tens of thousands move from, and to, the indigenous roll and the general roll every five years when they are given the choice and I think today around 20 or so per cent of M.P.s are Maori, with around 7 seats elected by people that choose to be on the Maori roll while the other 13 or so Maori MPs are elected as party candidates in the general roll.

    This is something perhaps Lebanon could learn from because in N.Z. things are not set in concrete forever – i.e. individuals themselves choose if they want to be on the Maori roll or the general roll – and Lebanon as if evolves toward a more “normal” or rational and modern non-sectarian parliamentary system could have such a transition whereby people can choose to vote as a member of a community, or if they choose, just a citizen voting on a “general,” non-sectarian roll.

    As we watch what is happening in Israel/Palestine – as the settlement acceleration procress makes it completely impossible for the palestinians and israelis to ever have separate states, what we will have in the region is 2 models for dealing with multi ethnic communities within single states: Lebanon, on the one hand, or the Land of Israel, on the other.

    As things stand, Lebanon is a hundred or two years ahead of the Land of Israel in terms of being a representative democracy – the Land of Israel is in a black hole where it decrees that some people in Judea and Samaria have full rights but their next door neighbours have no citizenship rights because of their communal or ethnic background.

    The Land of Israel is in serious trouble for decades to come, Lebanon has a chance still to be the Light on the Hill for the region.


    Posted by CZ | September 6, 2009, 6:06 am


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