Lebanon, Reform

Political Reform: The RedLeb Plan

I find it easier to debate a complicated issue (like political reform in Lebanon) when someone has taken the trouble to propose the outlines of a solution. Blank slates tend to stifle discussion.

Therefore, I’d like to re-post a comment that one reader, “RedLeb”, left in the “Abolishing Political Sectarianism” discussion. It stirs the pot quite nicely. Here it is.


RedLeb said:

I think the first step in abolishing political sectarianism should be limiting the power of the executive. The cabinet is currently too powerful, which is why everyone wants to be in it. This creates paranoia among the different communities, who feel that if the ‘other’ sect takes over the executive, they will be oppressed / enslaved / sold to Martians.

Creating an independent judiciary that can actually curb the executive is an important first step. Let the judiciary appoint judges, and place the police under its jurisdiction. There has to be a period where people can see an politicians tried and convicted so they feel confident in the law.

Electoral reform is also a starting point. We have to get to the point of one-man-one-vote. I’m more in favour of single candidate districts, than making Lebanon one large constituency. The latter promotes big party politics, while the former promotes more independent politicians. That will mean taking a census so as to create electoral districts with equal number of voters. And voting should be based on residency, not some mythical ‘place of origin’.

Expats should be allowed to vote, but there should be some residency requirements. For example, only voters who have resided in Lebanon in the past 5 years may vote. If that seems harsh, you could allow immediate family extend residency status (so if your mother still lives here, legally, you do to). Basically, I want to avoid living with the consequences of a 4th generation Leb’s vote who only showed up here for one summer.

I prefer presidential systems to prime ministerial ones. Let parliament be elected by purely local factors. Having a president directly elected by the people allows the nation to speak as a whole. Having a cabinet appointed by the president ensures efficiency. Plus it limits collusion between the executive and the legislative.

The road to non-sectarianism is fraught with paranoia, and steps would have to be taken to make communities feel they will not be left unprotected.

Initially, you could make the presidency rotate between sects (of course, I would hate to imagine the battle over which sects those are, what the sequence is, who goes on first). Or before the presidential system, you could have rotation of the sectarian troika.

Or better yet, have a national election to vote in a sectarian troika that has to run on the same ticket. (Isn’t it incredible that neither the President, Prime Minister, or Speaker of Parliament is elected by a direct national vote? This is NOT a coincidence.)

Over time, I believe political parties will adapt and become non-sectarian in nature. But initially, it would help to force them to open up by imposing limits on single-sect domination within the party. For instance, they cannot have more than half of their electoral candidates from a single sect.

A sectarian senate would also help build confidence. Give it the power to veto, but not create, legislation or even executive decisions. I have misgivings about this, because it can easily become a House of Lords and a permanent fixture of the political landscape, and not the temporary crutch I would like it to be.

And of course, you would have to deal with Hezballah. I am a supporter of the resistance, but I also recognize that getting any sect to give up its privileges while the Shia have all the guns will not engender confidence. And while it might be enough for some, ‘Trust Hassan’ is not an option.

This could be done by getting Hezballah to stop being a purely Shiite party and include other sects in its ranks and in the executive council. Or by institutionalising Hezballah within the Lebanese state and bring over it some state authority.

And finally, I don’t think anyone in the political class truly wants to end political sectarianism. It is what made them and keeps them in power. I doubt even Berri wants it because, whatever numerical superiority fantasies he may have, he would be superfluous in a non-sectarian regime.

Hezballah may be the odd man out on this score, and the importance given to political sectarianism in their new open paper actually surprised me. But they themselves would have to change if they wanted a (peaceful) change to the system. And I don’t know if they are willing to do that yet.
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15 thoughts on “Political Reform: The RedLeb Plan

  1. QN
    As many of readers of this blog and other forms know I support most of the specifics mentioned by RedLeb and I have at various times spoken in their favour.
    I do not wish to down play the importance of details. As the popular saying goes “the devil is in the details”. But as we have seen over the past month the real devil rests in a clear commitment to a goal. It is fool hardy to negotiate with those who are only interested in obstruction and obfuscation. I believe that the first step is to agree that sectarianism/confessionalism ought to be abolished. Then it would be appropriate to appoint a commission to discuss the various details that different groups have. The committee is to be charged in recommending a plan to phase in a non confessional system that covers all areas in the Lebanese body politic.
    Since there is an established unanimity , indirect as it might be through the adoption of the Taef accords, then I believe that the task ahead of the country is clear although fraught with potential disagreements about the rapidity of the phase out. We have no choice, nay we have an abligation to support Speaker Berri and urge him to appoint a commission to study and make recommendations about a process to be fololowed in abolishing sectarianism. We should not allow anyone to sidetrack the potential discourse by emphasizing peripheral issues. There is one issue and it is simple. The goal is to abolish sectarianism with due haste. The details are important but they are subsidiary to the goal. Speaker Berri needs to hear from all of us who support this process so that he will feel more comfortable that his proposal has grass root followers. I urge the formation of this committee and let the games begin. If Sfeir et al choose not to participate constructively then let it be known that they have been disingenuous in their support of Taef ever since its adoption and that it is time to infuse the body politic with fresh ideas and new blood.

    Posted by ghassan karam | December 6, 2009, 5:18 pm
  2. Don’t forget civil marriage.

    Posted by Benjamin Geer | December 6, 2009, 5:56 pm
  3. “The RedLeb Plan”, quite catchy! It has a nice sounding umm.. flavor to it… 🙂
    Really nice cartoon, by the way…

    I wanted to reply to RedLeb’s comment in the original post but felt the thread had died. Thanks for posting this again.

    Some very good suggestions presented, but I will limit my comment to some of the points I disagree with.

    – I don’t see how small single candidate districts would help build a non-sectarian system/society. The districts would be almost always uniform in color (sect) and would favor candidates who promote the limited aspirations of their region and sect. Parliament, however, must generally deal with nation-wide issues, which can only be the basis of campaigns where the electorate is large and diverse. I am in favor of adopting a proportional system with medium to large sized districts. This should be coupled with administrative decentralization, and giving more power for regional development to municipalities. In a proportional system with bigger sized districts, a political party would have to appeal to people from all sects in order to get the largest number of seats. This would open up parliament for non-sectarian parties. The sectarian parties would remain, but would certainly loose in representation. Also, some parties like the Communist party (or the Leftists in general) would rarely be able to gather the numbers needed in small single candidate districts although they represent a significant portion of the population at the nation-wide level.

    – It’s a good idea to rotate the troika between sects, but not to elect the whole troika in a single ticket. Imagine having [Okab Sakr, Hariri, Nassib Lahoud] vs. [Berri, Abdel Halim Mrad, Aoun]. That sounds like trouble!

    – I don’t like the idea of imposing limits on same sect representation within a party. If a party wants to be sectarian, it’s its right, as long as it doesn’t break the law or disturb civil peace.

    That’s about it for now..

    Posted by mas | December 6, 2009, 6:21 pm
  4. I’ll pick up on Mas’slast point. I think having strong and non-sectarian political parties is a crucial step towards overcoming sectarianism. So long as there is nothing preventing parties from representing one sect’s interests (instead of an actual political platform or agenda), and so long as one or more sects perceive themselves, correctly or not, as being threatened, sectarian parties will thrive.
    Imagine if Hezbollah (it’s the obvious example), is told tomorrow that 35% of its members have to be from one or more sects different from its majority, or lose its party registration. It would force a complete restructuring of the party or it would simply implode. Quotas would probably also rattle the zaim system, this elite class which is dependent on its sectarian clientele for survival.

    Critics will say that the minimum quota on party membership violates freedom of association, which is enshrined in many international human rights treaties. However,the many ways in which sectarian parties as they currently exist violate indiviudal rights by promoting the community’s interest at the expense of the individual, far outweigh the minimal restrictions that quotas would bring. On the balance of inconveniences, having quotas for political parties would be a lot more beneficial than continuing to give the zaims and their sectarian groups free reigh in controling the public arena.

    Let us not forget the ultimate goal being abolishing political sectarianism. In order to do so, we would have to tackle head on the political structure that forces individuals to think of themselves as a community-member first, and Lebanese citizens second. If the power structure and power dynamics are changed in such a way that people can’t think of themselves as a Maronite, or a Druze, or a Greek Orthodox, because it doesn’t allow them to draw any benefit from the system, then these identities will whittle away until they are confined only to the church service or Friday prayer.

    One very important tool in strengthening the political parties so that they are no longer sectarian groupings, is to convince community members that they are not at threat. I think a large part of the Lebanese confessional psyche rests on the “victim complex”, this idea each group has that it is a minority, that it has been taken advantage of in the past, or that it will be taken advantage of in the future. In order for this victim complex to disintegrate, we have to destroy the political structure which exploits it, and we have to provide confidence-building measures to the communities so that none of them feel they can ever be victim. The way to do that would be to dramatically bolster human rights and minority protection mechanisms. This would take us back to things like strengthening the judiciary, having a senate, a minorities rights’ commission, an Ombudsman’s office, or some kind of neutral body that monitors violations to individuals, and NOT communities, based on their sectarian affiliation.

    Posted by Blackstar | December 7, 2009, 5:46 am
  5. Blackstar says:
    “I think having strong and non-sectarian political parties is a crucial step towards overcoming sectarianism. So long as there is nothing preventing parties from representing one sect’s interests (instead of an actual political platform or agenda), and so long as one or more sects perceive themselves, correctly or not, as being threatened, sectarian parties will thrive.”

    Maybe its only me, but the above point which has been made by many other posters is totally unrelated to the issue of abolishing political sectarianism/confessionalism in the Lebanese political system. The Suleiman-Berri initiative is nothing more than an expanded electoral law which will create a level playing field in all government related jobs and elected positions. One simply cannot legislate how people think but one can change the political setting, the political structure as to make certain acts legal and others illegal.It would be highly desirable not to have sectarian parties but that would be undemocratic at the same time. A vibrant democracy demands freedom of thought as well as diversity. We cannot and we must not legislate ideology. All what we can legislate is equal opportunity.
    This does not mean that we should not use educational resources besides informational campaigns to promote the idea that political identity should be strongly associated with the state rather than religious affiliation.
    Let me repeat, it would be a big mistake to legislate or even hint at restricting political choice. Make no mistake about it, I will oppose very strongly any effort at legislating thought, although I have been for decades a strong vocal advocate of eliminating sectarianism in Lebanese politics. If I am right in making the above distinction then the first thing that the Lebanese government needs to do is explain in clear and simple terms the objective of this initiative in order to prevent disillusion on the part of many.

    Posted by ghassan karam | December 7, 2009, 7:01 am
  6. mas,
    Regarding the single-candidate districts vs. proportional voting districts, I am very sympathetic to your argument. I used to favour a single nation wide district with proportional voting to force more national (less sectarian) on the candidates.

    However, I’ve lately been favouring the single-candidate district approach. The main reason is because it would foster more independent candidates and undermine the big-boss system. In large districts, candidates will more often win because of big party voting machines than their own merits. You end up with one big-boss man, and his coterie of yes men that he puts on his list. In single-candidate districts, candidates will be more amenable to local concerns and issues, and not just toe the big-boss line.

    I do believe parliament should be a patchwork of local concerns. The reason you have a 128 people is for each one to present and fight for the real issues of his constituency, and not to have 128 competing visions of the national interest. The national interest should vested in a president who is voted in on a national election.

    I don’t believe mixed-sect districts with multiple candidates will necessarily breed non-sectarian candidates. It can just as well create a multi-sectarian electoral coalition composed of very sectarian candidates, which disband right after the elections.

    My feeling, and I could be completely wrong here, that single-candidate districts that have a majority sect will often split the vote, because room for back room election deals are reduced. You simply have to compete. That could make minority sects swing voters.

    Posted by RedLeb | December 7, 2009, 8:58 am
  7. Ghassan,

    I had answered your objections in my comment. But I will clarify and respond in more detail.

    First, with respect, the freedom that would be curtailed by setting quotas on political parties is not freedom of thought, but freedom of association. The two are quite distinct and separate legal concepts. The setting of quotas on a party’s ethnic make-up does not qualify as “legislating thought”, as you put it, because it in no way prevents individuals from choosing to think of themselves as Sunni, Shia, atheist, or Martian. Everyone would still be free to form parties based on an ideology of their choosing as well. Quotas would only establish certain restrictions in order to prevent ideologies from seeking to promote and protect the interests of one sectarian group exclusively at the expense of all the others. So, to sum up: the quota proposal would not affect freedom of thought, and it would not violate freedom of association.

    Secondly, States derogate from “fundamental” human rights all the time in favour of the public interest and security. For instance, privacy laws are often subject to security interests (think terrorism in France, UK or US), freedom of expression is often limited by anti-hate speech legislation, freedom of association is curtailed when protests are feared to turn into riots. If, on the balance of inconveniences,an individual right is seen as negatively affecting the public interest or the rights of other individuals, it is legitimate to limit it within reason (the legal test usually used by courts of law is usually based on proportionality and necessity). The existence of sectarian political parties which undeniably affect individual rights and the national interest should be ample reason to implement some kind of reform, regulation or overhaul, even if this would require slight limits to freedom of association.

    Third, you say you are in favour of abolishing sectarianism, yet against regulating or reforming the main engines that fuels sectarian politics. Do you disagree that politics in Lebanon is more or less a zero-sum game between the communities? A gain for one community is automatically seen as a loss for the others. Political actors on the national scene are merely political manifestations of the religious communities. Their existence makes it impossible to disassociate politics from sectarianism, and they embody an “us versus them” mentality which only serves to entrench the community members’ identity further. They are the reason why Lebanon is an aggregate of communities instead of a cohesive whole.

    The extent to which confessionalism has infiltrated every aspect of Lebanese public and political life requires that a truly comprehensive and pervasive reform be implemented. It needs to target not only the source of this kind of politics (the constitutional documents, customs, conventions,pacts, etc. that have sanctioned confessionalism), but also the various creations the system has spurred (like dysfunctional political parties).

    If political parties are unhealthy creatures, why not target them? Why not try to replace them with cross-sectarian entities that will force people to think of themselves in terms other than “I am Druze therefore I must follow Jumblatt”,

    I proposed one solution with the quota idea. But the truth is that there are many others. Thailand’s 1997 constitution for instance, which was innovative in many respects, created a directly elected upper house composed of members from civil society groups who were not allowed to be members of a political party and who had to be non-partisan.

    There are many such proposals. To adopt the position that certain necessary reforms can’t be carried out because they will touch this or that freedom or right overlooks the fact that the present system touches and violates a lot of individual rights and freedoms in an even more drastic way.

    Posted by Blackstar | December 7, 2009, 9:29 am
  8. Won’t quotas reinforce the idea that people should categorise themselves and each other in sectarian terms in a political context? Wouldn’t it be better to think about how to encourage the formation of parties that naturally draw members from different sectarian backgrounds, without the need for quotas, simply by addressing problems that cut across sectarian boundaries? What about, say, an Electricity Party?

    Posted by Benjamin Geer | December 7, 2009, 9:34 am
  9. Benjamin,
    “Won’t quotas reinforce the idea that people should categorise themselves and each other in sectarian terms in a political context?”

    From a certain angle, maybe. Except that from another angle, it forces parties to take up issues that are not “monosectarian” by nature. And the more the issues introduced into a party’s platform are, and are seen, as cutting across sectarian boundaries, the less people will think of the party in terms of confession, and the less its members and supporters will think of it in terms of confession.

    I can see where you’re coming from with your idea on parties focused on a single issue, but that creates a number of problems: would the executive create these parties? who would decide which issues can be turned into parties? the constitution, the courts? Your idea would probably prompt Ghassan Karam to lecture you on freedom of association and thought 😉 and this time he would be right…!

    Posted by Blackstar | December 7, 2009, 10:27 am
  10. Sorry, I should have been clearer. I think people should be free to make whatever kinds of parties they want, at any time: single-issue parties, left-wing or right-wing parties, Green parties, religious parties, etc. If people can easily create non-sectarian parties, probably some people will seize the opportunity to do so and thereby get elected. Maybe my idea of an Electricity Party is just a silly example, but on the other hand, if such a party has a chance of getting a lot of votes, because a lot of people have electricity problems, then someone will probably create that party. You don’t need to put it in the constitution or anything like that. You just need to make it easy for people to create non-sectarian parties.

    And as I’ve said here before, there are other things you could do to make that easier. You could create an independent, non-political institution to carry out censuses and polls, and to gather statistics about the whole population. Something like the INSEE in France. How can I know whether my crazy idea for an Electricity Party will attract a lot of voters unless I have reliable statistics on how many people have electricity problems?

    You could also think about regulating the funding of political parties. If funding is unregulated, then it’s easy for people with lots of money to create a party, and hard for anyone else to create one. One approach is for the state to provide public funding for parties, and to limit private funding. You could, for example, provide public funding to any party that can get a certain number of signatures on a petition.

    Posted by Benjamin Geer | December 7, 2009, 12:03 pm
  11. Blackstar,
    I am convinced, but I do have an open mind :-), that the first step is to form a committee and then charge the commission to study and submit recommendations.
    There are many reforms in all areas that would be needed to foster a Lebanese identity separate from that of religious identification including but not limited to civil law, education, structure of religious institutions among many other. But what is most important is for government to stop the process of allocating elective office and civil service jobs on sectarian grounds.
    To eliminate sectarian allocation of jobs is the strongest message that one can send to the populace that what is required is to reject religious categorization. There simply should be no room for religion in the public square.
    Equal opportunity should be offered without any prerequisites. Let each person decide for themselves who to vote for and which party to belong to.
    But then we are repeating ourselves aren’t we:-)

    Posted by Ghassan Karam | December 7, 2009, 12:49 pm
  12. Good discussion, guys, I will drop in and try to contribute something tonight. I have to get some writing done on my dissertation first.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | December 7, 2009, 1:35 pm
  13. RedLeb,

    I believe that when it comes to district size, we are not limited to either mini districts or to a single nation-wide district. Medium-sized districts would keep some of the regional issues in play, but without delving into local details that are very limited in scope. Such details must be dealt with at a more fine-grained level then parliament. Here lies the importance of administrative decentralization and of granting more power to municipalities. Parliament’s job is to legislate and legislation is, most of the time, applied to the whole republic. Having big parties in this case becomes more of an asset since they would lead to the competition of well-defined nation-wide strategies, rather than a mosaic of local concerns.
    I’m afraid of the fact that single candidate districts are necessarily majoritarian, meaning that the winner takes all, somewhat like the current system only at a smaller scale. When proportionality is introduced, it seems like a more accurate and fair representation of the electorate’s choices. I see your point that small districts might limit the influence of the big party zaim, but you can’t always be sure of that. Also, not all big parties necessarily follow the big boss system, and if the electorate isn’t pleased with the idea of voting for a zaim, they can choose to vote for other parties or individuals.
    When it comes to sectarianism, my argument is that if say 60% percent of the voters of a single sect will vote for the sectarian candidates, then in a single candidate district system, and out of 10 districts where this sect is the vast majority, 10 out of 10 of the elected MPs would be sectarian. Where as in a proportional system it would be 6-to-4. Let’s say you have a medium-sized district consisting of three main sects. It would be more logical to try to appeal to 100% of the voters than to just 33%. Sectarian parties would automatically be limited, without the need for quotas.

    I’m no expert on this, could be talking non sense here, but this is how I feel 🙂

    There is a topic that always pops up when talking about political reform, and that is introducing quotas for female MPs in parliament. What do you guys think about that? I’ve always been somewhat against it. I feel that the issue of equal representation should first become a public demand. In a proportional system, parties would be more likely to allow more and more women to be candidates to appeal to the portions of the population for which this is an important issue.

    Posted by mas | December 7, 2009, 6:25 pm
  14. Regarding the issue of which system: one is not restricted by either the first past the post system or the (nationwide) proportional rep’n system. One could have a hybrid system like Germany (if I recall correctly) where you would vote for a local MP (first past the post) and a party slate (prop’l representation). The local MP could be independent or belong to a party…
    On the issue of quotas for women. It is a difficult idea to swallow given that it assumes that women need a helping hand to get into parliament. On the other hand, they clearly do 🙂 – the numbers speak for themselves. In addition, isn’t our sectarian system nothing more than a humongous quota system?

    Posted by r | December 8, 2009, 3:31 am
  15. Maybe instead of limiting the power of the executive, a 5-year transitional plan could be applied toward delegitimizing the sectarian system and its political parties: All cabinets formed for the next 5 years should be purely technocrat and devoid of any political party presence. The traditional political parties, no longer entitled to assume executive power or abuse the sectarian “shrakeh watanieh” argument, will have no choice but to change their nature to adapt to a new system. Ambitious politicians will have to present programs instead of affiliating themselves with one part or sect.
    It’s not a complete suggestion, but it could be a great starting point toward rebuilding a functioning state and limiting the power of sectarian parties. What do you think?

    Posted by Dona Timani (@DonaTimani) | September 2, 2015, 9:27 am

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