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.
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.