10 Jan 2013

The Unintended Consequences of the Orthodox Election Law

The so called ‘Orthodox Gathering Election Law’ has generated heated debate in Lebanon, particularly after the major Christian parties have now signalled their support for this proposal.
The Orthodox proposal has resurfaced because of the inability of the main political blocs to agree on an alternative law to that used in the 2009 parliamentary elections, which left many feeling aggrieved and complaining of ‘improper representation’. With the next elections due in a few months, the pressure is on to agree on an alternative law or face the prospect of delaying the elections. While most critiques have focused on the reactionary nature of the Orthodox proposal, there are a number of unintended consequences that are worth contemplating, not least because they signal the exhaustion of the confessional system in Lebanon.

The perceived problem with the 2009 law is that many representatives, mostly Christian, depended on non-Christian votes to get elected. This is an ‘imbalance’ that the Orthodox gathering seeks to rectify by stipulating that members of each sect will vote for representatives from their own sect. Electoral districts will be abolished and replaced by a nationwide entity. Seats are allocated in proportion to the number of votes each list obtains. Supporters of the proposal argue that this will ensure that each sect is properly represented.

Most secularists, including me, consider this proposal to be deeply reactionary. ‘Proper sectarian representation’ isn’t what we aspire to, we would rather have a genuine clash of ideas, visions and political programmes. The previous election laws haven’t allowed this to happen however, with large sectarian blocs consistently favouring the winners based on convenient and expedient electoral alliances. By contrast, the supporters of the Orthodox law assume that the precondition for social harmony is more ‘accurate’ sectarian representation.

Many perceive this to be an attack on the idea of citizenship that will strengthen sectarian affiliation. While it is true that this is the intention of the Orthodox lawmakers, it is not clear that this is what will necessarily happen in the long term. Let’s look at some of the unique features of this proposal:

1-Should the Orthodox proposal be adopted, it will be the first time under any election law that secularists will be able to pool their votes nationally, albeit under sectarian groupings. Independent, secularist-minded voters could create a wide coalition and field incomplete lists under different sect categories, something which they have never been able to do so far because they are distributed among many districts contested by much larger parties.

If the threshold for entry was set at 5% for example, it means a Maronite, Shiite or Sunni list could get one or two members in parliament if it gets between 5 and 10 per cent of the vote. Under all previous laws, such a share of the vote wouldn’t be enough to vote someone in. At the moment, this situation is particularly distorted because voting is according to area of origin rather than residence, a bias that the new law will eliminate (unintentionally).

2- Sectarian mobilisation will be weakened if there is no threat from other voters ‘distorting’ the process. In hotly contested seats in mixed areas currently, much of the sectarian mobilisation relies on this ‘threat’. For example, that Shiite voters might decide a Maronite seat, therefor Maronite voters are mobilised to support a strong candidate to prevent that from happening. Under the proposed law, the conditions for that will be eliminated.

In the short term, current voting patterns and allegiances are likely to continue, but with time the ability to sustain this sectarian rhetoric will be weakened. The sense of grievance that large parties inflame and capitalise on will be eroded locally as those areas of intersections are eliminated. This will no doubt create an opening for non-sectarian parties to exploit and shift the terms of the debate.

3- Paradoxically, sectarian credentials will become less important than competence and political credibility. If you are choosing between Catholic candidates only, with time you are more likely to vote based on programmes and political credentials than under previous laws. This will have more of an impact on the smaller sects than the large ones, because the contest is between a smaller number of MPs on the list. Nevertheless, it will change the current situation were minority candidates are simply carried through by the votes of the large sectarian blocs with no regard to competence, programme or performance.

This will also create another possibility for independent secular candidates to make breakthroughs that were not possible under previous laws. If you are competing for 10,000 Catholic votes you will have more chance of success as a credible independent candidate than any time in the past.

4- Local zo’ama (leaders) will eventually lose their power. The proposed law will be revolutionary in the sense that traditional local leaders that have sustained their power for decades on the basis of local loyalties, the likes of Suleiman Frangieh, will ultimately lose out and see their power diminished. They will either seek alliances with the larger groups to be included in their lists in return for their voting blocs, or run their own lists if they have enough votes to pass the threshold. Their power will be reduced either way.

This will inject an unintended from of dynamism in Lebanese politics and help challenge established leaders that inherit their power from their predecessors. It will be possible for independents with more modern outlook to challenge them, and gradually make byways into parliament.

These are the four unintended consequences that might result as a consequence of adopting the Orthodox proposal. None of this is certain, and the success of secularist, non-sectarian candidates will be dependent on their ability to mobilise, which will require a lot of work and effort. What it says is that it is possible to exploit a bad law to make gains that that haven’t been possible until now.

But the central problem will remain gaining appeal through visionary and bold political programmes rather than sectarian appeal. There is a sense of fatalism that prevails and sees this as impossible in Lebanon, but I personally don’t buy that. What is clear is that this proposal is a result of the crisis of the confessional system and its inability to solve its problems without becoming more blatantly sectarian. That is a glimmer of hope in itself.

For all we know, the Orthodox Gathering proposal is being used as a negotiation card and it might be discarded in favour of a compromise that satisfies most of the parties in time for the elections. Nevertheless, that fact that it is being discussed should be read as an indication of the sense of desperation among sectarian leaders.

Update: The excellent people at Tajaddod Youth made some excellent comments on the law, which I am publishing below.

"Even the positive outcomes may not materialize. For many technical reasons. Will list them:
We've posted the text of the draft law. 
1- Impossible to have incomplete lists. Lists must be complete.
2- Seculars will have to file full lists 4 every sect, while sectarian parties will focus each on 1or2, with huge resource gap
3- The law doesn't place a common threshold. Various thresholds per sect. Threshold = Number of votes cast / Seats per sect
4- The varying threshold will make it difficult for new comers in big sects with relatively a low number of MPs
5- In countries where voters are segmented per sectarian lines extremist parties have always gained over time.
6- Local leaders but also good independents will lose. This law leads to even stronger concentration of power with big parties."

And here's the link to the full text of proposed law. (In Arabic.)

Some of these conditions in the law can be circumnavigated, such as the condition to field full lists, but they are explicitly designed to favour the large parties. Tajaddod's conclusion is spot on.

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