Mabrouk. It’s official: As of June 16, 2017, Lebanon has a new parliamentary electoral law. It is being hailed by the ruling parties as a major achievement, as an iconic moment in the history of Lebanon, the best electoral law to ever see light in the republic. It took Lebanese politicians four years of normal parliamentary time, four other years of extended parliamentary time, three illegal parliamentary extensions, a little less than a year of governmental vacancy, more than two years of a presidential vacancy, two Presidents, four Prime Ministers, five councils of ministers and at least twenty different possible draft electoral laws (not an exaggeration), to reach Lebanon’s new electoral law. Naturally, a sane and optimistic citizen would only expect a perfect electoral law to be the fruit of that difficult and long path. But we live in Lebanon, and the reality is far from being close to that.
The Path Towards a Flawed Design
At first , the new electoral law seems to deliver on the promise of radical change from the “1960” (2008) law, as it replaces Lebanon’s previous law – which is a majoritarian system implemented in districts that vary in size but are mainly small (Bcharre had 2 MPs and Baalbak-Hermel had 10) – with a law that is based on proportional representation with bigger districts (Bcharre was merged with 3 other districts as an example). That theoretical design had been for years demanded by several reform groups as it provides the Lebanese with a more representative parliament, bringing out minorities in districts and mixing up the sectarian composition of the parliamentary blocs, thus reducing sectarianism and giving every party its fair share of the pie while giving the opportunity for new movements to emerge from the shadow of the mainstream parties who were blocking anyone else’s rise to parliament by simply making strategic sectarian-local-tribal alliances that gave them the relative majority in almost all districts.
For that reason, proportional representation was going to be a major blow for traditional Lebanese politicians no matter how they tried to twist with that design. In a proportional system, trying to bypass the electoral hurdles by buying votes would be harder and far less cost-effective, politicians would have to campaign in a way that would be far different from what they had been doing for the past 25 years, they would end up with religiously-mixed blocs no matter what, and they would still find it difficult to contain the rising threat of the newcomer parties (such as Beirut Madinati, Sabaa, You Stink, or other Hirak movements) that would nevertheless make it through, especially after the 2015 trash protests and the 2016 Beirut municipality election results.
This is exactly why, for years, Lebanese politicians worked to avoid proportional representation, at first agreeing in Doha (2008) on a modified version of the 1960 law instead of passing proportional representation, and then individually endorsing something other than mainstream proportionality afterwards, with the PSP refusing their cabinet’s proportional draft in 2012, then March 14 parties proposing a 50 districts law, which was quickly followed by a modified 37 district law in 2013, while the FPM were at the same time trying to distort the representative and diverse essence of proportionality by trying to implement an apartheid draft electoral law that would only allow MPs to be elected by people from their own sect (the Orthodox Gathering law), and finally Hezbollah/Amal trying to scare everyone with proportional representation by suggesting to make Lebanon a single district with proportionality – something 2013 Lebanon was not ready to do.
With a governmental and then a presidential vacancy available for them to change the subject from 2013 to 2017, Lebanese politicians kept procrastinating and procrastinating, sticking to their original draft laws, and then ultimately proposing a one man-one vote law, around a dozen of proportional -majoritarian-mixed draft laws, as well as a “qualification law”, entertaining us with a play where they would at times endorse proportional representation while their rivals vetoed it and then vice-versa.
We are often given an impression by Lebanese politicians of situations that require time for them to solve because of their complexity, but in truth, their electoral law strategy was very simple: To avoid proportional representation as much as possible, by any mean available, such as giving a sense of political instability (right before the 2013 parliamentary extension), or even creating a virtual red line that it was not possible to elect a parliament in the middle of a presidential vacancy (right before the 2014 parliamentary extension).
That strategy of extending the parliament’s term and postponing the electoral law discussions worked for four years, but Lebanese politicians needed a final solution that would be more permanent for them, and with the rise of the Aoun-Geagea alliance and the return of Michel Aoun and Saad Hariri to power in the autumn of 2016, that solution could no longer be a parliamentary extension and had to be an election, preferably under a new electoral law, so that the new ruling parties would be ultimately seen as reformers , covering up 9 years of bad policies.
And so another serious quest to find an electoral alternative began in January 2017, and with every party trying to pass the draft law that fits it most, a compromise was getting impossible to reach, until MP Adwan of the Lebanese Forces finally brokered one. On Friday the 16th of June 2017, Lebanon’s parliament officially passed a new electoral law, that I will be calling the Adwan Law for two reasons: Because it bears the name of its creator, but because it is also in itself an agression (agression = Adwan in Arabic) on the idea of fair representation, bending proportionality with add-ons to suit the needs of the ruling class and making it easier for current politicians to stay in power. In proposing his parties-tailored proportionality rules, Adwan had solved a decade-old dilemma for Lebanese politicians who were under pressure to deliver a proportionality electoral law without actually wanting to pass one. And so, just like in 2008 when Lebanese politicians rushed to praise the 2008 electoral law as a step forward towards a fair representation (before quickly disowning it afterwards), mainstream Lebanese politicians are currently promoting the Adwan law as the best electoral law for the country. But be not fooled by the political celebratory gunfire, for the Adwan law is far from being an upgrade from the 2008 law.
So How Does The New Electoral Law Work Exactly?
With terms still limited to four years, the country will now be divided into 15 major electoral districts, made up of 27 sub-districts with the 128 MPs divided among them.
Parties and groups will still put up a list of candidates from across the sects but as opposed to the old, winner-takes-all system, the new law will allocate seats proportionally across the lists.
Each voter will select one list of allied candidates as well as choosing one candidate from the list as their preferential vote. The percentage of votes a list receives will determine how many candidates on that list will win one of that districts designated seats in Parliament. Whichever individual candidates take these seats will in turn be determined by the number of preferential votes they receive.
The voter is not required to cast a preferential vote. If the voter chooses more than one candidate as their preferred option, no preferential vote will be counted for that voter. In this case, only the voter’s choice of overall list will be counted. If, conversely, a voter casts only a preferential vote and does not select a particular list of candidates, then the list the preferential vote was chosen from will be automatically assigned as their choice, as well as the preferential vote.
Lebanese nationals in the diaspora will now be able to vote at embassies, consulates or other locations designated by proper authorities, as long as these members of the diaspora are registered in the Lebanese civil registry and have a clear criminal record.
One hurdle that was widely discussed in the lead-up to the signing of the law was the proposal to reserve six parliamentary seats for the diaspora. The new electoral law stipulates that six seats will be allocated for expatriates, but this regulation will not go into effect during the upcoming parliamentary elections.
The diaspora seats will be divided between three Christians and three Muslims, according to Article 112 of the new electoral law.
If you also wish to take a look at the entire law in Arabic, you can find it here.
1- Preferential voting and winning lists
At first sight, the electoral law seems like it is adopting mainstream proportional representation. Except it isn’t. The law separates Lebanon into 13 major constituencies that are made up from 27 minor ones (the administrative cazas). While Lebanese citizens vote for lists that can only run in the major constituencies, they can only cast one preferential vote in that list for a candidate that is running in his minor constituency, and candidates are ranked not by the number of preferential votes they get in the major constituency, but by the percentage of preferential votes they get in their minor constituency.
In theory, that system makes sure that all minor constituencies end up being represented, but in practice, that system of voting distorts the idea of proportional representation, and makes it look like a weird one-man-one-vote/majoritarian/proportionality hybrid, designed by our politicians to keep the status-quo.
A (not so) simple example: Let’s say the leading list in a constituency, List A, gets 40% of the vote of the vote in a major constituency made of 2 minor constituencies and 11 seats. The first minor constituency has 110000 voters and 3 seats, while the other one has 210000 voters and 8 seats. Let’s say the winning list gets 4 seats out of 11 (because it got 40% of the vote in the major constituency) and that in the first minor constituency, the preferential vote would be 40% for candidate A (44000 preferential votes), 30% for candidate B (33000 preferential vote), 30% for candidate C (33000 preferential votes), while in the second minor district, the preferential vote is more evenly distributed, with the four leading candidates there getting 22% of the preferential vote (46200 preferential votes). In the end, all of the three candidates that hail from the first minor district would be ranked higher than the other four candidates that hail from the second minor district (because the ranking is made by percentage, and 40%>30%>30%>22%), even though the candidates running in the first minor district had a lot less preferential votes. The three candidates that make it through for list A are all from the first minor constituency, although their allies that ran in the second minor constituency won more preferential votes. What makes things even worse is that list A could have probably been more popular in the second minor constituency, but because of the electoral system, more MPs made it in that list from the first minor constituency. Replace “first minor constituency” with Doniyeh and “second minor constituency” with Tripoli, and this scenario becomes a true story that coud happen in the next elections. It’s a scenario similarly applicable in all of Lebanon constituencies.
There will thus be a tendency for smaller minor constituencies to prevail in the winning lists, which would suit both Geagea and Bassil in the upcoming elections, since both hail from the smallest minor constituencies (Batroun and Bcharreh) in their major constituency (Batroun – Bcharreh – Koura – Zgharta), which would mean that a high percentage for Gebran Bassil and Sterida Geagea in the preferential vote in their small minor districts – something extremely plausible since Batrouni Aounis would overwhelmingly support Bassil and Bcharreh’s LF voters would do the same to Geagea – would put them at a higher ranking than any of the other candidates in their list, ensuring at list two seats for those two politicians in the upcoming elections.
When the leader of the FPM and the wife of the LF leader definitely get a seat via that electoral system – with or without an LF-FPM alliance – you start to understand why the LF-FPM alliance proposed and approved that law.
2- Preferential voting and losing lists
When it comes to losing lists, however, things change, and – plot twist – get even worse. Because every voter is only allowed to cast only one preferential vote, and because sectarianism is at the core of the Lebanese politics, the basic instinct of the voter will compel him to give the preferential vote to the candidate from his sect. Since Lebanese electoral rivalries have been historically been made between sectarian parties (the 2009 elections being no exception), this will mean that in major constituencies, the winning list is likely to be the one affiliated with the party that has the same sectarian identity as the religious majority of that constituency, while the highest ranked candidates in that list will be the ones that belong to that sect and that are the most extreme/outspoken in that list. For the losing list, probably affiliated with a party that has the same sectarian identity as the minority religion in that constituency, the seats would also be awarded to the most ranked candidates in that list, who would definitely be running for those minority-sect seats in that constituency. The winning MPs would eventually be the most sectarian ones in every list because of that one preferential vote, which is likely to maximize Lebanon’s problems after the elections, and lead to more sectarian speeches and taunting before the elections. The Adwan law, in its own way, makes sure that moderates do not make it to parliament, and if they happen to eventually make it by winning a certain percentage of the vote, they will always get the share of seats of the minor sects in that constituency, since the major sect’s seat in that constituency would be awarded at first to the winning list’s most ranked members, who are likely to be from that sect (even if the highest ranking candidate in the losing moderate / new party list is from the majority sect in that constituency, since all the seats for that sect would be taken by the winning list at first because its candidates that belong to the majority sect would be the highest ranking winners in it ) . And as long as the new parties / moderate parties that are trying to beat the mainstream parties do not control the mainstream parties’ main seats (of the sect of those parties), they will not truly threaten the influence of those parties, slowly pushing the new parties (with time) to become the representatives of the minor sect in that constituency instead of serving its original purpose to be a cross-sectarian opposition to the sectarian ruling parties. What makes it also difficult for some of the new small emerging parties is that some constituencies, such as Saida-Jezzine and Baabda, only have 5 and 6 seats, which means that, by the rules of the Adwan law, they would need to get 20% of the vote to get a seat, a threshold that is high and that could have been lower if some major constituencies were joined together.
To give a small example
- With the 2008 law, the FM would have won all 11 seats of Beirut II.
- With a proportional representation that didn’t have only one preferential vote, the FM would have probably won 7 seats, with only 4 of the 6 Sunni seats won by the FM.
- With the Adwan electoral law, the FM wins all 6 Sunni seats of Beirut II (since the most ranked candidates in the FM list are likely to be the Sunni candidates) as well as another seat or two, and the other seats go to the losing lists that are eligible to get a seat.
In other words, blocs that are unfairly overrepresented in some constituencies because of the 2008 law, will become fairly represented, but extremely sectarian. in religiously mixed constituencies, the sectarian parties that historically used to win all the seats in that constituency (because of the winner-takes-all system in the 2000 and 2008 laws), will now primarily win their sect’s seat. That would result in political blocs purely made of MPs of the same sect. While the composition of the current parliamentary blocs is at first sight sectarian, several blocs are religiously mixed: The FM, primarily Sunni, has a dozen of Christian seats, the CAR bloc has a Shiite member and two Druze ones, while the PSP has more non-Druze than it has Druzes. Under the new Adwan law, it would become easier for parties to clinch the seats that correspond to the sect they represent in every constituency (even in the ones where they lose), instead of winning all the seats of a constituency and losing all the other seats in another. That would mean that Jumblatt would be giving up 2 to 3 Christian seats, but he will finally be able to get a hold on at least 7 Druze seats (in the current electoral format he only has 5 out of 8), making the new proportional law a risk worth taking for him, probably explaining why the PSP leader eventually approved that law: With the Adwan law, ALL sectarian leaders get a grip on most of their sects’ seats, even in constituencies where they would have probably gave another seat to another leader because that sect would’ve been a minority in that district.
So in the end, instead of promoting religiously diverse blocs, proportionality, as designed in the Adwan law, eventually makes it easier for sectarian warlords to get their sect’s seats everywhere, resulting in homogenous sectarian blocs in parliament (which is why almost all of the ruling parties git excited when they saw it). And what makes this process even easier is the fact that the law makes it possible for incomplete lists to run in the elections, making it possible for minor sectarian parties in a constituency to get the seats of their sect without having to campaign for a lot of candidates (for example, Jumblatt fields a list of only 4 of 6 possible candidates in Baabda, pushes his voters to give the preferential vote to the Druze candidate, and manages to get a little more than the bare minimum to win one seat, a seat that would eventually be awarded to his highest ranked winner in his list, the Druze one)
That point, and that point alone, makes the Adwan law far more dangerous than the 2008 law: Close your eyes, and imagine in your mind Christian-supported lists running against Muslim-supported lists, the homogenous blocs resulting in parliament, and what happens next. So much for the pact of mutual coexistence…
Speaking of mutual coexistence, Lebanese politicians should receive a medal in bad redistricting. They managed to split the major constituencies in the most sectarian way possible:
- In the North, the four Christian cazas (Batroun, Bcharre, Zgharta, and Koura) were joined together, while the two Sunni ones (Tripoli and Doniyeh) were joined together, leaving Akkar, that has strong Christian minority but a lot of Sunni voters, all by itself.
- In the Bekaa, the same constituencies of the 2008 law remained, with a Northern Baalbak-Hermel predominantly Shia, a central Zahle predominantly Christian, and a Southern West Bekaa-Rashaya predominantly Sunni.
- In Mount Lebanon, the southernmost districts of Aley and Chouf, that almost have two-thirds of the Druze voters in Lebanon, were joined together, while the northernmost districts of Keserwan and Jbeil, predominantly Maronite (83% and 67%), were joined together. The Metn, predominantly Christian (93%) but not Maronite enough (43%) to be joined with the northern Keserwan-Jbeil, was left alone, while Baabda, not Druze enough (17%) to be joined with the Chouf-Aley constituency (40% Druze), and not Christian enough (52%) to be joined with the Metn (93% Christian), was also left alone.
- In Beirut, our lawmakers – in denial and thinking that we still live in Lebanon’s 1975 Civil War – separated, in disgusting pride, the eastern part of the city (predominantly Christian), from its western part (predominantly Muslim), reinstating on paper a virtual green line that had been absent since the end of the Civil War in 1990. So much for mutual coexistence.
- In the South, the predominantly Sunni city of Saida was separated from it caza and joined with the predominantly Christian Jezzine, while the rest of the Saida Caza (= Zahrani) as well as the Tyre caza, both predominantly Shia, were joined together, officially creating a major constituency that is predominantly non-Shia and another that is predominantly Shia. The cherry on the top? the caza of Jezzine and the city of Saida don’t even border one another. The only thing they have in common is that they’re both in the south and have less Shias than the other cazas.
- In the Nabatiyeh governorate, Hasbaya-Marjeyoun, Nabatiyeh and Bint Jbeil all remained together. Can you guess why? They’re all mainly Shia.
Never in the modern history of Lebanon has the electoral redistricting been so sectarian. There have always been traces of sectarian constituency making, such as separating Achrafieh, Rmeil and Saifi from the rest of Beirut in the 2008 law, but the level of sectarian redistricting in the Adwan law is by far unprecedented.
The constituency map, that tries to separate Shias from Druze from Sunnis, Maronites from non-Maronites, and Christians from Muslims, serves one purpose: To make the process of getting sectarian homogenous political blocs – already facilitated by Adwan’s preferential vote in the minor constituencies (that was explained earlier) – even easier by reducing to 6 out of a possible 15 the number of highly religiously mixed constituencies: Akkar, Baabda, Chouf-Aley (which actually favors the PSP even though it remains religiously mixed), Jezzine-Saida, West Bekaa-Rachaya, and Zahle. For those 6 constituencies, the Adwan preferential vote system will do the trick of giving Christian parties the Christian seats they desire and the Muslim parties the Muslim seats they desire.
Finalizing the March 8 / March 14 shift
To understand the true goal of that electoral law would be to understand how the people who designed it think. Since the month of November 2015 (the month when Hariri decided to endorse the presidential candidacy of Frangieh), and till the month of October 2016 (the month Berri decided not to vote for Aoun in the presidential elections), through the month of January 2016 (the month Geagea decided to endorse Aoun), Lebanese politics had been slowly shifting from what was left of the 2005 March8/March14 divide to something far more dangerous: A Christian/Muslim divide. The closest electoral draft to the Adwan law is the 2012 March 8 – Mikati proposal, which is theoretically similar to the Adwan law, also based on proportionality, and boasting 13 constituencies instead of 15 major constituencies, but with two major differences: In the 2012 law, the constituencies were designed in a way that favored a March 8 win (Baabda is with the Metn to get Baabda’s Shia influence into the Metn, Tripoli is alone to maximize Mikati’s chances, and Jezzine and city of Saida are with the Zahrani and Tyre in order to get Tyre and Zahrani’s Shia influence to Saida and Jezzine) , while the preferential vote was not made and calculated in a minor constituency, but in the major one.
In fact, those two distinct features (the redistricting and minor constituency preferential vote) of the Adwan law were added to get sectarian homogenous blocs, something that wasn’t that much of a priority back then – winning a majority as a March8/March14 coalition was the top goal. Now that the cross-sectarian March 8 and March 14 coalitions that used to rule Lebanon in 2012 have all been broken up and that the new coalitions that are likely to compete in the upcoming elections are sectarian ones (with the assurances given by the Christian leaders that the FPM and the LF would run together, making it difficult to see how Hezbollah and the FM would fit in the lists together with their Christian allies and where that would leave Amal and the PSP), an electoral law tailored to give the FM the Sunni seats, the FPM and the LF the Christian seats, Amal and Hezbollah the Shia seats, and the PSP the Druze seats, seemed more appropriate. Which is how and why the Adwan law eventually saw the light and was the lucky draft electoral law to be approved by the Lebanese parliament.
Ans so with the Adwan law, a 12 year era of having Muslim and Christian parties compete together against other Muslim and Christian parties officially ends.
One Man One Vote vs Proportional Representation
Casting only one preferential vote in a list also means that the candidates within that list will try as much as possible to compete with their list allies instead of focusing how to beat the other list, shifting the campaign strategies from list vs list to candidate vs candidate. That electoral system thus becomes closer to a one man – one vote system, where candidates compete in constituencies similar to the 2008 law, (the minor constituencies are almost the same as the constituencies of the 2008/1960 law), with the number of seats per list being awarded on a major constituency basis.
So in other words, the new electoral law is basically a one man – one vote law, implemented on the 1960 law electoral map, with a pinch of proportional representation.
No Women’s Quota
A women quota of 40% would have forced Hezbollah to field women candidates in its lists in Nabatiyeh-Hasbaya-Marjeyoun-Bint Jbeil and Baalbak-Hermel, which would have put the party of God in a very uncomfortable situation (it’s the only major party in Lebanon that is yet to have a woman in parliament or in cabinet). Constituencies of Hezbollah influence were kept away from other constituencies, as Jezzine-Saida were separated from Tyre-Zahrani and Baabda wasn’t joined with the Metn, although the size of those constituencies justified joining them together (Baabda and Jezzine-Saida are the smallest two major constituencies), probably in exchange of not putting a quota for women in the new electoral law?
Another problem for Hezbollah has always been the diaspora, that is rumored to be more friendly to its political rivals. Including the diaspora vote in the 15 constituencies would have made that process unpredictable for both Hezbollah, its allies and its rivals. So instead, Lebanon’s lawmakers saw that it was wiser to reserve 6 seats, each for every continent, for the diaspora, in the 2022 elections, postponing that potential problem 4 years, and reducing the influence of hundreds of thousands of potential voters to 6 seats, maximizing in the process the number of seats to 134 (something they have been dreaming of since 2013). Smooth.
Insane Complexity = Parliamentary Extension
It has been always hypothesized that a secret clause of the Aoun-Hariri presidential-premiership deal in the Autumn of 2015 had a parliamentary extension clause, (1) evening a little bit Aoun’s 6 year term and Hariri’s 6 months term, (2) giving time for Hariri, via his cabinet, to reestablish himself in his Sunni stronghold, (3) draining in the process, via protest fatigue, the rise of the new parties that grew out of the 2015 Hirak, and (4) letting the FPM-LF alliance become more acceptable for the Christian electorate still in relative shock with how two warlords that clashed with one another militarily and politically for three decades simply made peace to facilitate their domination of the Christian constituencies. That hypothesis became more plausible when Lebanese lawmakers added 11 more months to their already illegally doubled term while voting for the electoral law on the 16th of June. The law is so complex I just spent 12 pages trying to explain how it works. You have the proportionality, the major constituencies, the minor constituencies, the preferential vote, the sectarian quotas, and that’s just a part of it (here’s a list of other bad things regarding the Adwan law, such as issues of public spending, overseeing elections, and introducing magnetic cards, among other things) . The electoral law could have been reached by January, but there was obviously no will to do so, for a simple reason: vote on a complex electoral law at the last-minute and reap the benefit of adding the maximal number of months to the parliament’s term.
In fact, an electoral law as complex as the Adwan law was the Christmas gift that gave an alibi for the ruling Lebanese politicians to extend the current status quo (by extending the parliament’s term for 11 months), keeping Hariri for at least 11 more months in power, and turning the trash crisis as well as the presidential and governmental vacancies into distant memories for the Lebanese, also giving 11 months for the ruling parties to brace themselves and prepare for elections (those roads won’t pave themselves alone).
A Law Not Worth the 9 Years Wait
Mabrouk. It’s official: As of June 16, 2017, Lebanon has a new parliamentary electoral law. On paper, the Adwan law is all about proportional representation. But in reality, and because of the additional policies that were introduced for the one and only purpose of gerrymandering, it becomes closer to a one-man-one-vote-majoritarian system inspired by the 2008 (1960) law, than it is to the true essence of proportionality.
Only our genius Lebanese politicians can pull off something like that Frankenstein of an electoral law. They’re going to try to convince you that it’s an upgrade on the 2008 electoral law. And they would be partially correct: On the short-term, it has a pinch of proportional representation that would finally give an opportunity to new, small and moderate parties to make it to Nejmeh Square (emphasis on pinch). On the long-term, it’s a Civil-War-inducing upgrade that is likely to reorganize parliamentary blocs in a predictable sectarian way while keeping the ruling Zuamas on the same chairs they have been occupying for decades – more or less.
Nevertheless, cheers to a new beginning. At least we’re having elections – plot twist – in 11 months.