11 Mar 2013

The Sheep, the Wolf, and the Lettuce: The Riddle of the Lebanese Elections

There’s an old riddle that goes like this: there’s a farmer that has a sheep, a wolf and a lettuce that he needs to take across a river. However, his boat can fit only one of the three in addition to him. If he leaves the wolf with the sheep, the wolf will eat the sheep. If he leaves the sheep with the lettuce, the sheep will eat the lettuce. So how does he move all three safely across the river?


This is a good metaphor for the current predicament facing Lebanon with regards to the parliamentary elections. Think of small parties/sects as the lettuce, for example Walid Jumblatt or Suleiman Frangieh. Large parties/blocks like the FPM, Hezbollah or the Future Movement are either the wolf or the sheep, depending on which electoral law we’re discussing. The farmer used to be the Syrian regime but the position is now vacant, hence the confusion.

Electoral systems that are based on small districts favour the lettuces of Lebanese politics, but give them a disproportionate share of representation in relationship to their real levels of popular support. By contrast, larger districts mean that the lettuces will be gobbled up by the sheep, the wolves will take a bite off the sheep and might even be tempted to experiment with vegetarianism.

Since the end of the civil war, the powers to be have relied on highly creative forms of gerrymandering and devising composite systems to ensure some sort of balance between the wolves, the sheep and the lettuces. That creativity seems to have evaporated before the upcoming 2013 elections however, and there doesn’t seem to be any obvious way of manipulating the current system to ensure everyone remains pleased and un-devoured.

Hence the frantic attempts at devising a new system that guarantees our three passengers a safe journey across the river and makes the farmer’s life a little bit easier. A wide range of electoral laws has been proposed, ranging from the lettuce-centric to the pronouncedly wolverine. Here’s how they stack up on the lettuce-sheep-wolf scale:

At one end of the spectrum, there’s the ‘1960 Law’, small districts, winner takes all. It ‘protects’ the lettuces but, believe it or not, it gives large lettuces advantage over small lettuces because of the winner takes all aspect. Wolves and sheep lose some of their ‘road roller’ power, because the smaller districts weaken their ability to monopolise representation in large districts.

A step up, there’s the 2000 law which the default current system. A composite system based on small and large districts in different parts of the country, winner takes all. This is the most contorted system, the wolves reign supreme, the sheep benefit but resent the favours they have to demand from the wolves, and the lettuces are the mercy of the others. Some lettuces can exploit their sexiness to wolves however.

Boutros Draft Law. A hybrid system between simple majority in small districts and proportional representation on the large district level. Although it aims to pacify wolves, lettuces and sheep, it is seen as too unpredictable. (Who wants unpredictability in elections?) Although in theory it might be a step towards wider proportional representation.

Nation-wide proportional representation. Good for the wolves and the lettuces, but the sheep will complain because the wolves can take a bite off their share but they can’t the bite the lettuce in return. The Future Movement thinks it will lose seats to Hezbollah/Amal, the FPM and the LF think they will lose seats to both Hezbollah, Amal and the FM, and, depending on the threshold, smaller parties might have a chance at a breakthrough into parliament. Some unusual-looking lettuces might make it in.

The ‘Orthodox Law’. In its current draft, the Maronite wolves will eat up both the Maronite sheep and lettuces, and likewise for the Sunni and Shiite wolves. That’s not how the Maronites wolves see it though, they prefer to think it’s protecting them as Maronite lettuces and sheep from the Sunni and Shiite wolves. It might yield to unusual results primarily because people aren’t, er, sheep, and many will revolt against sectarian monopolies.

There are also various other proposals trying to create workable hybrids and achieve a reasonable balance between wolves, sheep and lettuces.

Putting the merits of each system aside, the real problem here is the debate around the electoral system revolves around protecting the positions of the political players as if they have a natural right to be represented. This is inherently anti-political and reflects the stagnation of the Lebanese political system.

Barring any surprises, it seems that the farmer has decided not to cross the river any time soon, and wait for calmer waters.

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Karl reMarks is a blog about Middle East politics and culture with a healthy dose of satire.

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