Lebanon, Reform

Electoral Systems and Lebanon

Click image to download IFES report on electoral systems (highly useful).

A friend of mine recently drew my attention to the fact that the ministerial statement (al-bayan al-wizari) of Saad al-Hariri’s government contains a surprising clause: a commitment to begin developing a new electoral law for the 2013 parliamentary elections within the next eighteen months (see article no. 20) It’s not clear to me how binding this commitment is or whether Parliament can really pressure the cabinet in any way if they don’t deliver a new draft law by June of 2011, but there is officially supposed to be a re-visitation of the issue of electoral reform.

Unfortunately, there is very little understanding of what kinds of electoral systems exist, what kinds of outcomes different systems tend to produce, and what kinds of measures are necessary to implement them.

This doesn’t mean that there is a lack of rhetoric on the issue. Take, for example, Christian parties like the Lebanese Forces, the Kata’eb, and (some elements within) the Free Patriotic Movement. These groups tend to support the idea of small (even single-seat) districts where candidates are elected on a majoritarian basis (as they are, for example, in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.K. House of Commons). Parties like AMAL and Hezbollah, on the other hand, have called for a single national district with candidates elected according to proportional representation (as is found, among other places, in Israel.)

These two systems are diametrically opposed. They represent two extreme poles on a wide spectrum of electoral systems. One would think that, given the differences in the two models and the forms of government that they engender, a public debate might have emerged by now, exposing the merits and drawbacks of both sides. Of course, no such debate has really emerged, and the reason for this, I believe, is that most people (including politicians) don’t really get electoral systems. Until quite recently, neither did I, and I’m still figuring them out.

But guess what? It’s your lucky day. The International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) has graciously allowed me to publish a report that explains, in a clear and concise manner, some of the basic principles of different electoral systems and their implications for Lebanon. I’ve seen no better short presentation of these issues that is specifically geared to the Lebanese context, so I highly urge you to download it (it’s in PDF), read it carefully, and come back and tell us all which system you’d like to see instituted.

Update: This report by Matt Nash is highly worth reading. It breaks down the numbers behind the proposal to lower the voting age to 18. If you’re curious about how many of the 18-21 year-olds belong to which sect, this report provides the figures presented by Rabi` al-Habr’s company (Statistics International).
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16 thoughts on “Electoral Systems and Lebanon

  1. Interesting stuff. In my view, the better system, among the five presented in the paper, is the PR – Single Transfarable Vote, Irish and Maltese style. It is the most democratic, although it is also the more complex. But who said Democracy is a simple and easy thing?

    Posted by Voice from Brazil | January 29, 2010, 1:59 pm
  2. Put down as a strong supporter of FPTP single seat district. Accountability is my litmus test. Districts can be gerrymandered so as to create strong districts for “minorities”.

    Posted by ghassan karam | January 29, 2010, 10:35 pm
  3. Elias,

    I think Lebanon will be better off with a system like the US , two houses , representative that are chosen by certain number of people and divided districts and a senate that picked from the counties large or small with same number per county or Muhafaza , and as in the US they need 60% of the vote in the senate for passing major laws , they can start in the beginning by having 50% of districts that will have more than 50% Christians and 50% of districts that will have more than 50% Muslims but there should be no mandate to elect a christian or a Muslim in any district and with anti discrimination laws in housing and employments these districts will change their compositions , what i like about small districts is that people will vote for people they know and religion will take a back seat and if they do that every 2 years , the representatives are always in election mode and trying to have things done for their districts to run on them so the country will move forward faster,

    Posted by norman | January 29, 2010, 10:48 pm
  4. In an ideal world, I would go with the single transferable vote. After lots of thought, I think it is the fairest. But that system was even rejected in provincial elections in Canada because it was too complex, so I doubt that it would make it in Leb.

    So I vote for the Mixed Member Proportional Representation system, a la Germany: It mixes the benefits of both proportional representation and first past the post. You get local accountability and over the long run, hopefully (nationwide) party politics… In addition, you get fairness, in that the percentage of seats (per party) roughly matches the percentage of votes..

    Posted by R | January 30, 2010, 7:02 am
  5. I don’t think the specific system is particularly important. As even the PDF from the IFES points out, there are advantages and disadvantages to each system. The American people hate their system, the Israelis hate their system, the Brits hate their system… The important thing is that there is fairness, transparency and accountability in the system.

    Currently, Lebanon lacks fairness because it’s ballots are not uniform, are easy to manipulate and are hard to administer. It lacks transparency because the administration of elections is complex and has many opportunities for corruption. The system lacks accountability because it’s too hard to remove politicians or their patronage networks.

    My reforms would be process oriented, rather than system oriented. and would hold regardless of which system of election is administered.

    I would suggest lebanon adopt an election law that provides a common ballot form, the opportunity for outside groups to serve as election monitors (with some method for enforcement of legitimate claims of material corruption), a clear and consistent method of counting ballots (including recounts), TERM LIMITS for all elected officials (including bans on direct nepotistic transfer of power), a clear and generally easy method for a potential candidate to become a candidate, and one of either (1) limits on money used in campaigning or (2)public financing of underfunded candidates, so that money is not the driving force of who wins elections. Additionally, I prefer mandatory registration and voting, like in Australia and Ecuador (or be subject to a fine) for domestically located nationals.

    Also, I would recommend a national referendum process that is generally accessible to the public. With the caveat that laws passed by national referendum would have a duration 5 years, and then must be renewed by the parliament and president to stay in effect (or be put to another referendum).

    Even, I think there is no problem with having quotas (say, for having a minimum number of female or christian/sunni/shia/druze… parliamentarians, or such), as long as the quotas are not used to disempower the disempowered…

    do i get a cookie for solving lebanon’s problems?

    Posted by Joe M. | January 30, 2010, 5:10 pm
  6. Joe M,
    I am in total agreement with the central point of Joes’ post. There is no perfect electoral systems and each of the major ones seems to work rather well in different countries.
    I have a feeling that no matter which system we adopt the outcome will be the ame if we fail to instill in the Lebanese voter a sense of responsibility and a sense of obligation to country.
    Yet if I were to choose I believe that the single seat district will be the most likely in bringing about change.

    Posted by ghassan karam | January 30, 2010, 5:21 pm
  7. Having voted in the US and the UK, I think both those countries’ electoral systems are badly broken. It’s much too easy in the US for the minority party to obstruct all legislation. Government paralysis is almost as bad in the US as it is in Lebanon. Just look how difficult it’s been for Obama and the Democrats to pass health-care reform that most Americans want and that millions of people desperately need.

    In the UK, people often have to vote tactically: you don’t vote for party A, which you like, because you’re afraid that party B, which you hate, will get elected, so you’re forced to vote for party C, which you hate almost as much as B, just to keep B from getting elected. Thus you never get to find out whether A really has a chance. Single Transferrable Vote looks much better to me.

    Posted by Benjamin Geer | January 30, 2010, 5:41 pm
  8. I would add, my list was not exhaustive, and there are many possible reforms that would improve the system.

    one important policy that i forgot to add was that there should be the option to spoil your ballot, and vote “none of the above” or something. and if spoiled ballots win, then some form of renewed election with different candidates is required (or, maybe a presidential appointment).

    In voting for candidates, my preference is for some type of ranked voting with run-offs. but that makes little sense when you have small districts. and run-offs are expensive and tend to create voter apathy.

    Posted by Joe M. | January 30, 2010, 6:18 pm
  9. @Joe M.

    How can you say the type of system is not important then turn around begin imposing ballot structures:
    “there should be the option to spoil your ballot, and vote “none of the above” or something”

    Which makes little sense because that is called the act of abstaining from an election.

    Tell 1973 Chile that electoral systems don’t matter…

    Lebanon needs a system with proportional representation, to some capacity, with high governability, which would then mean a strong unified coalition type of government thats able to take over the reigns of control in the land… and thats pretty much the holy grail of systems.

    All I can say is , if Bush could be president (twice!) and then right after that regime the ppl elect the first minority president in the US’s most crucial history (and fix all his mistakes), then surely Lebanon is ripe to inherent its share in the future.

    Posted by Jamil | January 31, 2010, 2:58 pm
  10. Because I think there should be mandatory voting, I think it’s only fair to allow people to spoil their ballots. There are many reasons people don’t vote, but when there is mandatory voting with the option to spoil, it is more unlikely that it is sheer laziness preventing people from voting. plus, it imposes a direct cost to spoiling a ballot if there is a system for dealing with a situation where spoiled ballots win.

    my point was that you can find good and bad to every overall system, and you’re not going to find universal acceptance of any one system (because some people gain and some lose). But there are methodological ways to improve the effectiveness of voting, without imposing vast structural change.

    Posted by Joe M. | January 31, 2010, 5:50 pm
  11. A Vote is a physical expression of your societal fears and hopes, having the Lebanese people vote at full capacity is only going to create concrete evidence of chaos and distrust. What I mean by that is, right now Lebanese society is ravaged with identity issues and saturated with sectarian rhetoric-lets stop trying to make this quantitive as well as qualitative.

    You need to fix the people, before you can fix the people.

    I’m saying we’re broken, and its so obvious and it needs to be said more. Having our grandmothers fill out ballot doesn’t rationalize her hatred for the proverbial “other side,” then FORCING her to fill out a ballot isn’t going to make it better.

    And this includes feeding that hungry that are being forced to vote…what sort of society do we want to live in where the state is forcing its citizens to vote for leaders that wont even feed them?

    Posted by Jamil | February 1, 2010, 3:46 am
  12. Jamil,
    I don’t want to address this issue too much, because i don’t think it is a useful debate to have. But, you are half right and half wrong. I agree that there are issues in the way people identify themselves in sects (against others) that make it harder for any political system to work. So, you are right that it is important for people to change themselves before there will be real change in Lebanon. But that does not mean that all reforms would necessarily create tension.

    In almost every country, it is mandatory to participate in the tax system (whether it is enforced is another issue). That is a cost of citizenship. Similarly voting must be seen as a cost of citizenship.

    Further, making even grandmothers vote is advantageous because it institutes a universalism to the political system. it does not allow them to reject the political system altogether.

    You think it would create distrust and chaos, well, it might do that to some degree. but you are wrong to say that that is all it will do. every political change will create some level of chaos and distrust. that is not a sufficient reason to reject it.

    In the end, i would rather see Hizbullah and the FPM join into one single party (that that it will ever happen), than a restructured political system. I think that type of action would do more to end sectarianism and corruption in Lebanon than some electoral reforms. which is in line with your argument that people have to change themselves first. but that does not mean that make the electoral system more fair, transparent and accountable is a bad thing.

    Posted by Joe M. | February 1, 2010, 4:11 pm
  13. “You think it would create distrust and chaos, well, it might do that to some degree. but you are wrong to say that that is all it will do”

    What I said was that it isn’t a matter of simply getting votes, bags upon bags of ballots isn’t going to save Lebanon from sectarian turmoil and any perceived benefits that you may use to justify a system that would force its hand.

    I agree with the part where you say I’m half right, but I respectfully disagree about being half right. (joke)

    This isn’t a matter of what we would rather see its about what system would yield the best results for Lebanon.

    Plain and simple, making people vote who don’t have their basic needs being meet wont solve anything and its only going to further alienate and make them feel that they need to forcefully see change come.

    Lebanon is dependent on European and American interventions to solve any and every major sectarian crisis the country saw from pre-modern era to the modern era.

    Shouldn’t we be more worried about these issues first and foremost?

    I’m not arguing that we completely ignore voting and shunning high voter turnout, but for the state to move forward these votes have to reflect a smarter, healthier, and less sectarian people.

    Posted by Jamil | February 1, 2010, 6:42 pm
  14. If anything, increasing participation in the political system will make the system more responsive to the people’s needs, making it more likely they will build schools, provide food, and recognize a common citizenship (rather than sectarianism), with will help the people become a “smarter, healthier, and less sectarian people.”

    Anyway, it’s a chicken and egg question. and not worth discussing further.

    Posted by Joe M. | February 2, 2010, 1:38 am
  15. Yes, I suppose

    Posted by Jamil | February 2, 2010, 6:26 am
  16. It’s time to look closer at the numbers quoted in the Matt Nash/NOW Lebanon article that you refer to. I presume the numbers it uses are based on the the MOI’s 2009 voter register data, although it isn’t clear where the MOI’s data on the 18+ year olds come from.

    But assuming that it’s good data, the article only details the increase in each confessional group. As this perspective shows a 8-9% increase in the number of Sunni/Shia voters, perhaps this article is being used as a ‘semi-scare story’ to encourage Christians to block lowering the voting age, using the hoary old argument that they want it balanced by expat voting. (Haven’t they seen that the 2008 law guarantees that registered expat citizens will vote in the next parliamentary elections?)

    A far more relevant consideration would be whether lowering the voting age has a significant impact on the electorate as a whole. And here, using the data from this article, there’s a very different picture.
    * Sunni go from 27.1% of all voters to 27.5% – an increase of 0.4%
    * Shia go from 26.5% to 27.1% – a increase of 0.6%
    * Maronites drop from 21.7% to 21.3% – a fall of 0.4%
    and so on.
    The overall ‘change’ is that the proportion of Muslim voters rises from 60% to 61% while the proportion of Christian voters falls from 40% to 39%. Hardly “a deluge of new voters [that] would upset Lebanon’s sectarian balance”.

    The article also does not consider the ‘electoral impact’ of these changes, perhaps because it would be negligible. The new Shia or Sunni voters will mostly vote in electoral districts or municipalities where their families are already registered. Can anyone think of where any of last year’s election results would have been different had 18 year olds been able to vote?

    Posted by ElectionGuerrilla | February 5, 2010, 7:37 am

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