The electoral law being championed by Lebanon’s Christian parties — also known as the Ferzli law, the Orthodox law, the Orthodox-Maronite Gathering law, or as we like to call it here at Qifa Nabki, the “OMG law” — is the most backward, sectarian, reactionary, bloody-minded proposal to come out of a legislative committee in a very long time. As Michael Young noted in an editorial a couple weeks ago, the plan is a recipe for greater Christian isolationism and hardened sectarian boundaries:
The proposal has yet to be clarified and is unlikely to be adopted as law. The idea is this: Lebanon votes as a single district, with each sect electing only its own candidates. Votes are tallied for the different lists, and the proportion of votes each list receives determines its number of parliamentarians. There is a problem, however, for those communities with few or no representatives. Several smaller Christian sects, for instance, compete over a single Beirut seat reserved for minorities. Most of their voters will not participate in an election that allows them but one candidate – effectively meaning disenfranchisement.
I personally don’t believe that the law will pass. In the event that it does, though, I’d like to suggest that it may create some interesting opportunities for Lebanon’s liberals and their anti-sectarian agenda. Consider the following:
1. Pushing Sectarianism Onto the Front Page
If the OMG law passes, one could imagine that it may have the effect of mobilizing the many Lebanese who are passively frustrated with the confessional system into lending their support to the anti-confessional cause. It could, in other words, have the effect on Lebanon that the Syrian regime’s extension of President Lahoud’s mandate in 2004 had on the fortunes of the Lebanese anti-Syrian opposition. When one thinks back to that moment today, it’s difficult to imagine why Bashar al-Assad insisted on forcing Lahoud down Lebanon’s throats when he could have simply installed another Syrian stooge at Baabda. The extension was an act of defiance, yes, but it was also a symptom of supreme political myopia that backfired on Damascus in short order.
The passage of the OMG law could easily have the same galvanizing effect on a different corner of Lebanon’s political opposition: the small but very vocal civil society sector and the much larger quotient of the Lebanese electorate that is sick and tired of Lebanon’s zu’amocracy. Under the OMG law, there will be no hiding the fact that Lebanon’s “consociational democracy” has devolved into nothing more than a constellation of sectarian communities who coexist in uneasy and suspicious alliances. The myth of inter-confessional harmony will be shattered. Furthermore, it will be impossible to mask the enormous inequalities of suffrage that are created by this law, which gives the Greek Orthodox vote twice as much weight as the Shiite vote, and Maronite voters over 1.5 times the weight of Sunni voters. One will no longer be able to disguise these inequities through gerrymandering.
The OMG law will make such travesties as plain as day, and no one will be able to ignore them. Lebanon could find itself in breach of UN protocols and other conventions on human rights that require certain basic democratic principles like equality of suffrage, guarantees of the free expression of the will of the voter, etc. In other words, Lebanon’s confessional system would become a liability for its international obligations, which has often created opportunities for activists to get progressive legislation passed (as in the case of the anti-smoking ban).
The Christian parties seem oblivious to and unthreatened by all of these prospects. I think they disregard them at their peril.
2. Paving the Way for a Senate
I’m not going to restate everything I’ve written about this issue, but I think it’s worth noting that a Lebanese parliament elected on the basis of the Orthodox law is nothing more than a senate, at least as it is envisioned by most of the people who have thought about it at any length. (See here for my study of a hypothetical Lebanese senate for Stanford University’s Program on Arab Reform and Democracy [Arabic translation here]).
Interestingly, Walid Jumblatt made a related point on this score yesterday, asking: “Why don’t we cause a positive shock and leap into a Lebanese qualitative election spring by freeing Parliament from sectarian representation as stipulated by the Taif Accord and move to establish a senate in which all Lebanese components are represented?”
I don’t think the creation of a senate is in the cards in 2013, but the adoption of the OMG law would make it all the easier to advocate for a bicameral system in 2017. What would be called for, in that instance, would not be a senate (because the Parliament, perhaps down-scaled in size, would effectively be a senate) but a lower house freely elected on the basis of equal suffrage and no confessional quotas.
3. An Opportunity for Liberals To Get Elected
Interestingly, the main virtue of the OMG law is that it would seem to create unprecedented opportunities for reform-minded candidates to get elected. By implementing proportional representation in a single national district, the law drastically lowers the barriers to entry for candidates outside the mainstream political parties.
Consider the following. There are just over 700,000 Maronite voters in Lebanon (according to the 2011 data). If we assume that we’ll see about a 50% turnout in 2013, this means that it will require just over 10,000 votes to elect one of the 34 Maronite seats in Lebanon’s parliament. That’s remarkably low, compared to previous electoral laws. Members of other sects (like the Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholics) have even better chances at snagging a seat.
Under the current law, a Maronite running in Kisrawan, for example, could receive 30,000 votes and still lose the election to his opponent, who won 30,500 votes (which is generally what happened all around the country in 2009). Under the OMG law, candidates from multiple parties and alliances would share their confession’s quotient in a proportional fashion.
I guess what I’m saying is that this deeply sectarian law would ironically make it possible for a small coalition of anti-sectarian candidates to get elected rather than simply complaining about the system from the outside. What’s 10,000 votes? It’s really not that many when you think about it, especially if civil society organizations, bloggers, social-networking gurus start educating people today about the opportunities to take back parliament, especially if the OMG law passes.
In other news, I’m in Beirut this week, enjoying the sunshine and the shanklish, thank you very much. More soon.