Lebanon’s confessional system keeps change just out of reach

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Posted on the 2nd September 2020

Josh Dell is a writer based in London, who has led on democracy projects for organisations including Bite The Ballot and The Politics Project. His work has been published in CityMetric, Left Foot Forward, and The Sunday Times. 

The views, opinions and positions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Electoral Reform Society.

Following the tragic Beirut Port disaster on 4 August 2020, there was a call for elections from caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab. While in many countries such a call would be seen as heralding change, in Lebanon early elections (the next was not due until 2022) are seen by some as a “trap”, laid a by a long-entrenched political elite that does not want to lose power.

Lebanon (estimated population 5.5m in 2020) has a political and electoral system in which political representation is directly equated with religious representation. In the only country in the world that guarantees representation for six different branches of Christianity (as well as all major and some minor branches of Islam), the question of how elections should be fairly run is an ever-present. In fact, the inability to agree on a new election law delayed elections in the country by five years between 2013-18.

Below we will explore the Lebanese electoral system, how it functions within the nation’s complex demographics, and the question of whether it can bring change to a country whose current politicians are widely derided and only recently described as its “greatest tragedy”

Lebanon’s confessional system: a brief overview

Elections in Lebanon happen in a higgedly-piggedly way. Its most recent general election in May 2018 was scheduled for 2013 but delayed three times by Parliament, meaning that Lebanon’s citizens had been unable to elect new representatives for nearly 10 years.

Lebanon’s political system is based around confessionalism, wherein its various religious groups are guaranteed representation relative to their presence across the country’s electoral districts, with Parliament’s 128 seats split equally between Christians and Muslims and the branches within each of the religions. This differs significantly to other democracies in which seats are specifically reserved for minorities to ensure representation is the face of the majority ethnic group, such as the Iranian Consultative Assembly’s reserved Jewish seat or New Zealand’s Maori electorates

In the most recent general election of 2018, the allocation of seats looked like this:

Religious branch Number of seats in Chamber of Deputies
Sunni 27
Shia 27
Druze 8
Alawite 2
Muslim Total: 64
Maronite 34
Greek Orthodox 14
Greek Catholic 8
Armenian Orthodox 5
Armenian Catholic 1
Evangelical 1
Minorities 1
Christian Total: 64
Grand Total: 128

This system has been in place since before Lebanon’s independence and is unlikely to change any time soon despite the demands of protestors and civil society activists. It is one whose rules are as arcane as to require citizens to vote not where they live but in their family’s ancestral home, and where there is no pathway to citizenship whatsoever for longterm residents of the country, meaning that in the case of Lebanon’s 500,000 plus Palestinian refugees there is no way to have a say in the nation’s politics.

Intense sectarian divides in Lebanon continue to exist in a nation in which some religious groups do not want to hear about demographic changes that would alter their political position – hence Lebanon has not conducted a nationwide census since 1932.

This occurs alongside the allocation of various leadership roles to religious groups – the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, the speaker a Shia Muslim. Reflecting on Lebanon’s capacity to retain the politicians of old (many of those helming its political parties, such as President Michel Aoun, were leaders during the Civil War), Lebanese lawyer and elections expert Rabih El Chaer described how Each time before an election they [the political class] are able to split the population… based on confession. They don’t allow them to think widely and out of the box about the real questions”.

Lebanon’s electoral system 

Up until the 2018 general election, Lebanon utilized the same First Past The Post electoral system as the UK. This meant that for those seeking to go beyond sectarian politics the challenges were manifold, as evidenced in the last elections to use FPTP in 2016, the Beirut municipal elections. 

Despite securing 40% of the vote, a movement called Beirut Madinati (Beirut Is My City) sought to take on a coalition of old-guard politicians led by former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, yet was unable to win any seats in the city’s council.

Lebanon’s new electoral law, finally agreed in October 2017, was seen as a major milestone in allowing independents, new parties, and non-sectarian groups to secure representation. 

In it, the country is divided up into 15 electoral districts, some which have several sub-districts within them. Voters are given two votes, one for a party list and one for a candidate within the list.

And yet the requirement within each district for confessional quotas to be met resulted in frustrating divides for those seeking a post-confessional world. El Chaer described a situation in one district wherein one candidate received thousands of votes and was still unable to win, whilst another with only 70 votes was elected due to the requirement that their sect receive representation.

Conversely, Paula Yacoubian MP – one of the few civil society independent candidates elected in 2018 – benefitted in the district of Beirut I both from the electorate’s desire for political change, and the additional benefit of receiving significant support from the Armenian Orthodox confession. Due to Yacoubian’s religious background, she was thus assisted by a significant block of voters to draw on.

What are the alternatives?

Lebanon’s constitution, first adopted in 1926, clearly states that the confessional system’s elimination is a “basic national goal”. Furthermore, one of the key commitments made at Taif in 1989 was to create a Lebanese Senate that would maintain the confessional system, while elections to the Chamber of Deputies would be conducted in an entirely non-sectarian manner.

It is 2020, and these types of changes seem far away. Indeed, commenting on the impact of the adoption of proportional representation in 2018, Dr, Elie Abouaoun, Director of Middle East and North Africa Programmes at the United States Institute of Peace, said (speaking in a personal capacity) that the alterations were a big disappointment as it actually allowed the same political tycoons to consolidate their power in the legislative – and later in the executive powers.”

In a move that has further dented hopes, the replacement for the recently resigned Prime Minister was based in large part around their being hand-picked by four former Lebanese PMs – a role that Parliament is meant to lead on and be at the heart of.

Lebanon faces a huge range of political, economic, health and societal issues that go far beyond its political set-up and voting system. Yet in a country that has been shaken to its core by August’s port explosion, the need for change is greater than ever. 

Dr Abouaoun argued that this change must be one that takes time and be a gradual change that considers Lebanon’s sensitive reality…[its] diversity and historic fears of marginalization”. Change to the voting system in 2018 was one of these changes. More will have to follow to fulfil the promise of its constitution and bring an end to the confessional system.

Over 300,000 Beirut residents were made homeless by the Port explosion. Impact Lebanon are raising funds to provide shelter and accommodation for them in the months and years ahead. To donate, visit https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/impact-lebanon

Image Mario Goraieb CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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