Elections, Free Patriotic Movement, Hezbollah, Lebanon, March 14, Reform

Exploring the Implications of a Single National District

lebanon-singledistrct

Last week, Hizbullah chief Sayyid Hasan Nasrallah announced his party’s support for an electoral law based on a single national district. In the past, the main champion of this idea has been Speaker Nabih Berri, but there has never been an occasion to take the possibility seriously since Lebanon’s electoral laws have generally not departed drastically from precedent. 

This year is different. We’ve seen the biggest political parties get behind some outlandish (dare I say unorthodox) schemes. The Christians support a single-district formula that would forbid citizens from voting for anyone but a member of their own sect. The Sunni Future Movement has floated the idea of a bicameral legislature. And the largest Shiite party has now put forward a “compromise” solution in the form of a single district with no forced confessional voting.

It seems a safe bet that Hizbullah’s proposal is dead in the water. The Future Movement is unlikely to go for it because they’ll lose seats to Hizbullah under any large district proportional representation model, and the Christians won’t go for it because it maximizes the number of Christian MPs elected by non-Christian voters. What Nasrallah is proposing, in fact, is the exact opposite of what Aoun has proposed, which says something interesting about these two allies’ respective visions of the country.

But even though the proposal is unlikely to go anywhere, I thought I’d present some observations on what a single national district model might engender. I am indebted to the wisdom of a very savvy expert who would prefer to remain anonymous.

1. What kind of proportional representation are we talking about? 

As several commentators have snarkily remarked, it’s a little ironic that Nasrallah’s ideal electoral law resembles the system that exists in Israel (but also recently in Jordan and also in Palestine in 2006). In those contexts, the system used is called “Closed List PR,” which means that parties are responsible for ranking their own candidates on a list. Voters basically just go to the polls and cast a single vote for one of the various national lists that are running. Seats are allocated to the various lists in proportion to the votes won. The specific candidates that are chosen from the winning lists are determined by the list’s own ranking of those candidates. 

In Lebanon, however, all proposals so far have been for “Open List PR,” where voters choose their favored  list but may also give a preferential vote to a specific candidate on that list. Seats are allocated to lists on a proportional basis, but seats are allocated to candidates in the order that they received preferential votes. This approach gives the voters, not the party, the power to determine who wins a seat on a list.

What’s the impact of this in practice? As my informant suggests:

There are some technical aspects (imagine the size of a ballot paper for Open List for just 2 lists with 128 candidates each). But the major impact is on how parties prepare lists and campaign. For a Closed List, how do you get someone to agree to be 128th, , or even 40th on a list when there is an absolute certainty of not winning? Who would Aoun choose to be a number 2? This system requires a very different approach to party politics (one that is disciplined and/or democratic) that Lebanon lacks but for one major exception [i.e. Hizbullah]. It also means campaigns are funded by parties/heads of lists/members/donors and not by candidates themselves. Open List creates a different dynamic, as it often means that there’s an internal contest within the list (‘Vote for List A but for me, and not for him’). There’s also the problem of popular leaders, who may win the vast majority of the preferential voters cast on a list, which means that some of that list’s candidates may win a seat despite only winning very few preferential votes.

The short answer is that Nasrallah probably supports Closed List PR but has not yet been distinct on the matter.

2. Confessional Quotas

In order to maintain a system of confessional quotas within a single national district, you need a special methodology. First, each list would have to contain every confession that has a seat in proportion to the number of seats for each confession (i.e. you could not have a list with more than one Armenian Catholic). Second, there would need to be a mechanism to allocate seats so that it is not just done in terms of the rank order or preferential order, but where there is a rule that a candidate would be skipped if that confession was previously filled.

In other words, it would be possible for a Greek Catholic candidate (for example) to be elected with fewer votes than a Maronite candidate on the same list if all the Maronite spots had already been filled by candidates who won even more votes than the guy who would be passed over by the Greek Catholic. I have a great diagram someplace that explains this…

The problem is that in Lebanon there is also the constitutional requirement that the Parliament represent the country both confessionally and geographically, which has traditionally meant that each confessional seat is tied to a specific district. In other words, it’s not just 34 Maronite seats to be included as a quota but 1 Maronite from Akkar, 3 from Zghorta etc.

Each PR proposal so far has maintained this connection which in effect creates a ‘double quota’, and that is incredibly hard to manage within PR lists for a single national district unless there are requirements for each list to have ‘A Maronite from Akkar’, ‘An Alawite from Akkar’, etc. It’s not clear if Nasrallah is envisaging that there would be such lists, or if he’d support scrapping the district connection altogether.

3. Thresholds

The results of a PR system can be significantly impacted by the election threshold adopted. The common wisdom is that a lower threshold makes it easier for non-mainstream candidates to get elected (which is often code for “liberals and radicals”). My informant clarifies:

You don’t need a threshold as PR always creates a natural threshold with the electoral quotient (e.g. in 2009, to win a seat: 1,734,029 voter turnout divided by 128 seats = 13,548 electoral quotient. It’s worth noting that Lady Geagea won a seat with just 13,066 in 2009.) But a threshold is useful to ensure that there are not too many small parties. Israel now has a 2% threshold above which a party qualifies for a seat. In 2009, that would have meant a list would need 34,680 to win a seat. That’s more than what Aoun got to win a seat in Kerswan.

4. Full Lists or Partial Lists?

One issue that always comes up in discussions of single national districts is whether one would have to field a full list in order to compete in the election. Obviously, putting together a list of 128 candidates is a very difficult thing to do for any organization that is not already a mainstream political party. This is why in many countries with single-district PR systems, you do not need to submit a full list. In Lebanon, however, the confessional quotas create complexities for allowing partial lists.

These are just some of the issues that should be discussed in any national conversation about a single national district.

Discussion

13 thoughts on “Exploring the Implications of a Single National District

  1. QN,

    I was under the impression that what Nasrallah was proposing was a complete proportional system and to do away with the sectarian quotas. Is that wrong?

    As for the questions your adviser raises there are simple answers based on the Israeli experience:
    ” For a Closed List, how do you get someone to agree to be 128th, , or even 40th on a list when there is an absolute certainty of not winning? Who would Aoun choose to be a number 2?”

    First, you do not need to submit a list with 128 (120 in Israel) names though the major parties do. The non-realistic places are an honor given to party elders and retired politicians. As for the “realistic” part of the list what we have now in most parties are internal primaries that determine the list. This works well. In the past there was a “list organizing committee” of party officials and the process was much less democratic and less transparent. In any case, these are really non-issues.

    I used to hate the Israeli system because I felt it gave too much power to the smaller parties as they could “extort” the bigger ones as a condition to join the coalition. Thus the religious parties in Israel punch above their weight. However, over time, I have come to the understanding that the Israeli system has one HUGE advantage over all others. It is the system that is most fair and therefore encourages solving differences thorough the ballot box and negotiations. There are very few wasted votes and even geographically dispersed minorities are fully represented in the Knesset. For example, the Arab parties in Israel have about 10 seats in the Knesset. If we had a system like the US or the UK, the districts could have been easily gerrymandered so that they would have much less representation. Same goes for other parts of Israeli society.

    Posted by AIG | March 2, 2013, 12:33 pm
  2. QN, great article yet again. I was anxious to hear your thoughts on the single-district PR proposal Sayyed Nasrallah floated this week.

    One part of the article caught my eye. You mention the following:

    “What Nasrallah is proposing, in fact, is the exact opposite of what Aoun has proposed, which says something interesting about these two allies’ respective visions of the country.”

    What exactly do you mean by that last line? Recall that Aoun did indeed propose that an alternative to the Orthodox Law is the single-district PR proposal, and in light of that I don’t think the two leaders have a clash of visions for the country as much as you made it seem. Perhaps I misunderstood you.

    GB

    Posted by GBeaino | March 2, 2013, 12:40 pm
  3. I agree with AIG, filling the lists would not be difficult. Sweden also has an open-list PR system (with 29 voting districts and a 4% threshhold for party lists). There’s never any problem filling the lists, even though many names will be practically unelectable. In fact, you often find parties presenting a twenty-name list in districts where they are only likely to get one or two seats.

    As AIG says, retired politicians can be counted on to let themselves be listed, but up-and-coming activists also often seek a nomination. Since the lists are open, there’s an option for preferential voting among the candidates. Some of the lower-rung nominees will therefore conduct their own personal campaigns to get preferential votes and leapfrog their way to the top of the list, but it’s pretty difficult. To be eligible for a move up on preferential votes, they have to get past a threshhold of 5% of the votes cast in that district. Since Swedish voting districts are quite large, most of them fail. Even so, enough people are willing to try, sometimes just for fun. It does help the parties get people out on the streets.

    Then there are other party members who aren’t even trying to get elected, but who will still be honored to see their name on the list, even if it’s at the bottom. Many view this a way to improve their standing within the party, and figure that being low on the list this year could help them move a couple of steps up next time.

    So, filling lower-level slots has never, ever been a problem in Sweden, even for the smaller parties. I don’t imagine it would be difficult in Lebanon either. Whatever else the country’s missing, there’s clearly no shortage of ambitious politicians.

    The real problem will be to decide who gets the realistically electable higher-rung list positions. In the Swedish system, the parties will typically use some form of internal primary process. That might not work in Lebanese party organizations, since they tend to be very top-down, but for electoral purposes, it doesn’t matter how the list was composed. In the end, the voters still get to choose.

    Posted by aron | March 2, 2013, 2:37 pm
  4. GB

    A single district PR framework without confessional voting would run against the entire rational for the orthodox law. It would let more Christian MPs be voted in by Muslims than the 1960 law.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | March 2, 2013, 3:07 pm
  5. A low threshhold does have the advantage of wasting fewer votes, but then again it might make it significantly more difficult to manage parliament.

    But whatever Lebanon chooses, this will be only for this election I presume? Like always.

    Posted by Pas Cool | March 3, 2013, 4:11 am
  6. Thanks QN one more single district example to add is Iraq. I am not an Iraq expert and would love to hear from somebody about this. What I see is the following: In the first postwar election in Iraq it was a single district with no allowance for sectarian power sharing all votes were equal. The result was almost purely sectarian voting for the most sectarian lists because the sectarian share of power was in a way the single issue. Sectarian boundaries were totally unprotected, the sectarian share of power depended purely on the number of votes, which meant that sectarian share was the only item on the agenda. The voting patterns in the first Iraqi elections where the law was in fact totally secular were transformed de facto into those of our very own Lebanese Orthodox Law because Shias voted for Shias, Kurds for Kurds and Sunnis for Sunnis and also for lists that were exclusively that. Cross sectarian, secular lists like that of Iyad Allawi’s had no chance and performed very badly.

    There was almost unanimity in Iraq at that time that any Lebanese style ‘ta2ifiyya’ power-sharing system was rejected.

    The formula is that the system needs three elements: one is the protection of boundaries to strengthen non-sectarian agendas, two is to allow for intra-sectarian competition and three to allow cross-sectarian cooperation. Which is what happened in subsequent elections. It is only then that lists like Iyad Allawi’s Iraqiya managed to gain some ground. If Iraqis refused to learn from us, maybe we can learn from them.

    Posted by Nadim Shehadi | March 3, 2013, 4:21 am
  7. AIG said:

    I was under the impression that what Nasrallah was proposing was a complete proportional system and to do away with the sectarian quotas. Is that wrong?

    He wasn’t suggesting getting rid of sectarian quotas, just using a single district. Getting rid of the quotas is so antithetical to what his allies have been advocating that it would be extremely embarrassing to propose that. Berri has done so in the past, but the FPM has never disguised its contempt for Amal.

    As for the questions your adviser raises there are simple answers based on the Israeli experience:
    ” For a Closed List, how do you get someone to agree to be 128th, , or even 40th on a list when there is an absolute certainty of not winning? Who would Aoun choose to be a number 2?” First, you do not need to submit a list with 128 (120 in Israel) names though the major parties do. The non-realistic places are an honor given to party elders and retired politicians. As for the “realistic” part of the list what we have now in most parties are internal primaries that determine the list. This works well. In the past there was a “list organizing committee” of party officials and the process was much less democratic and less transparent. In any case, these are really non-issues.

    Yes, but as my source points out, we don’t have the same party discipline in Lebanon, with the exception of Hizbullah. A lot of the candidates who end up on lists are really just “affiliates” who are dropped onto slates because of their popularity in a small district, or because they donate a lot of money to the campaign. Organizing a primary is an interesting idea but I think we’re a ways off from that.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | March 3, 2013, 12:14 pm
  8. Aron

    Thanks for your comment. The difference between Israel and Sweden is that Israel uses closed lists, not open ones. So it’s a lot easier to persuade a politician to join a list because the likelihood of their being elected depends on how many preferential votes they get, not the order they’re placed by the list organizers. In other words, if I’m an up and coming politician who thinks highly of my chances to get elected (because I’m constantly in the press, on social media, making appearances, etc.) then I’m counting on my own popularity to get me elected in an open-list system. But if the system has closed lists, then it doesn’t matter how popular I am, because if I’m placed at the end of a fixed party list, there’s very little chance I’ll get elected.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | March 3, 2013, 12:19 pm
  9. Nadim,

    I’m not very knowledgeable about Iraq either, but Reidar Visser is and he left a relevant comment on this blog about a year ago.

    Which electoral framework do you prefer out of the ones that have been floated? Orthodox? Single-district with no confessional voting? 1960?

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | March 3, 2013, 12:38 pm
  10. QN,

    Whatever happened to the Taef agreement? I thought Taef was supposed to eventually do away with the sectarian based MP allocation. Seems no one brings it up anymore.

    Posted by Ras Beirut | March 3, 2013, 7:14 pm
  11. Round and Round in Circles everyone seems to go. Any wonder nothing ever gets resolved.

    Ras Beirut.

    Touche.

    Posted by Gabriel | March 4, 2013, 1:55 pm
  12. What Ras Beirut said…We’re still rehashing the old issues without any thought for actual progress.

    Posted by Bad Vilbel | March 4, 2013, 3:15 pm
  13. Nadim, districting, intra-sectarian competition, and cross-sectarian cooperation – isn’t that what we have now? just without the non-sectarian agendas, of course…

    Posted by andrewbek | March 9, 2013, 7:14 pm

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