Lebanese Electoral Law – A Prelude to Political Change?

Posted in Broader Middle East | 23-Feb-05 | Author: Manuela Paraipan

Protestors carry Lebanese flags and anti-Syria banners during a street demonstration in Beirut, Lebanon Monday Feb. 21, 2005.

In the Middle East, elections were and still are to a certain extent what people in the old days called a "rara avis" (a rare bird, i.e. not a common event). However, due to developmental progress that is being made on a global level, Arab people are also calling for their right to choose their parliament, government or president.

Lebanon has been the exception of the region’s rule for a long time. Although Syria dictates the principles of Lebanese policy, the Lebanese people have not given up. Not long ago, they held municipal elections and now they are preparing for parliamentary elections due to take place in May this year.

Last year, they missed having presidential elections because Syria extended General Lahoud’s mandate for three more years. President Assad was not impressed by pressure from the United States. He also has not felt placed under pressure by UN Resolution 1559 or the European Union's repeated call for Syria to stay out of Lebanon's political affairs. He has just continued to interfere. Definitely old habits die hard, especially when an autocratic leader is involved.

Now, Lebanese from all over the world (approximately 12,000,000) along with the 3,500,000 who live in the country have joined forces to call for democratic and transparent parliamentary elections in Lebanon. This was the easy part of the process. In order to elect future parliamentarians, it is necessary that a new electoral law be established that will satisfy the Sunnis, the Shiites, the Druze and the Christians.

Electoral law is the main concern on the Lebanese political stage at this point in time, especially because the upcoming parliamentary elections in May could perhaps mark the long-expected turning point in Lebanese politics. The debate and the approaching political struggle will be between the pro-Syrian politicians and the pro-Lebanese ones. While the pro-Syrian political elite is content with the status quo in Lebanon – namely Lebanon as a Syrian satellite - the pro-Lebanese are eager to take control of the country in order to once again have a sovereign, independent and democratic Lebanon.

The Interior Ministry received 128 different proposals for the electoral law and decided to adopt small districts (qadas) with a majority vote system in line with the 1960 electoral law. The opposition, together with the Patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir requested that the present electoral law should be in accordance with the 1960 one, because this law guaranteed democratic and transparent parliamentary elections and it established a direct relation between the potential voters and the candidates. After long, heated debates, Interior Minister Suleiman Franjieh submitted a draft of the electoral law to the cabinet. The cabinet reached a consensus and the law has been sent to the Lebanese Parliament for final endorsement.

Nonetheless, the cabinet chose neither to lower the voting age from 21 to 18 nor to allocate 30% of the parliamentary seats to women. Women in Lebanon suffer from insufficient political representation in parliament, despite the fact that the declaration of Beijing's World Conference for Women in 1995 highlighted in its recommendations the importance of increasing the representation of women in public affairs to a minimum of 30% by 2005.

The following are the main aspects of Lebanon's electoral law:

Adopt rules for electoral advertising

Increase measures to protect voters' rights and place binding conditions on the use of screened voting booths during voting.

Allow mayors and mukhtars to run in elections after they have resigned from their posts

There are 128 members of parliament with a 4-year term in office

The country is divided into 26 electoral districts; thus, the distribution of parliamentary seats will be made on the basis of the number of voters from each sect

Any candidate attempting to influence votes will have his/her candidacy annulled if he/she spends over LL150 million, exploits his/her financial status to offer gifts, stir sectarian strife or political sensitivities or uses intimidation tactics in order to gain more votes

All audiovisual media and non-political press are prohibited from broadcasting electoral propaganda during the run-up to elections. Any organization that breaks this rule runs the risk of being closed down for a maximum period of 30 days and is subject to a fine ranging between LL10 million - LL100 million

The Interior Minister, Suleiman Franjieh, described the former Premier Hariri as the "upper-most master of the opposition" and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt as the "smaller master". The rest are "bodyguards." Although a Christian Maronite himself, pro-Syrian Franjieh publicly declared in a talk-show interview broadcast by LBCI (Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation International) that some politicians from the Christian Qornet-Shahwan coalition, such as Pierre Gemayel, the son of former President Amin Gemayel should be deported for the well-being of the country: "If they are sent out of the country, the country will be okay, with no problems or crises."

As a Maronite and a supporter of Syrian presence in Lebanon, Minister Franjieh hopes to be the next president of Lebanon. Apparently he is overlooking the fact that the international community - particularly the EU and the US - have empowered the UN to impose Resolution 1559. Therefore, it is unlikely that Syria will still be able to appoint the president of Lebanon by trespassing once more upon the sovereignty of this state.

President Bush's goals for his second term have not changed; he still seeks to spread democracy in the Middle East and beyond. Iran and Syria, together with the Israeli/Palestinian conflict are high on his agenda. Countries such as Sudan, Pakistan, Afghanistan and also those in the Gulf and North Africa region may be targeted as well as a result of a US foreign policy that is focused on the Arab and Muslim world.

Nonetheless, Iran is the first hot spot not only because it produces Weapons of Mass Destruction, supports terror and has relations with Al-Qaeda, but also because it has encouraged the insurgency in Iraq. Syria's military occupation of Lebanon is backed by Iran through the 15,000-strong army of Hezbollah, a militia recruited, trained, financed and armed by Tehran. While Syria regards Iran as its strategic ally in the region, the mullahs see Syria and Lebanon as potential bargain coins in its negotiations with the US.

Last year the Bush administration moved onto the offensive by proposing UN Security Council Resolution 1559, which demanded an end to Syrian and Iranian military presence in Lebanon and the disarming of private militias, particularly Hezbollah. Since then, Syrian officials are avoiding any overt interference in Lebanese internal affairs in light of foreign pressure, but they are not yet willing to abandon their position. Therefore in this context, the Syrian regime is likely to turn to the Lebanese opposition and try to strike a deal with them either officially or behind the scene.

Discussions about freeing Samir Geagea, Lebanon's most prominent political prisoner and the leader of the Lebanese Forces (LF) movement and allowing General Michel Aoun to return to Lebanon are tactics by Syria to gain the support of the opposition. What is Syria getting in return? The Baathist regime gets to stay in power for a little longer! Apparently, this is the deal. The support of the opposition will help Syria to claim that it is in perfect agreement with the existing regime, the Taef Accord and the Lebanese opposition; thus, US and UN pressure are not legitimate. This will save the Syrians the humiliation of withdrawing under US duress and will serve as a way for them to prove to the world that it is their own choice to leave Lebanon.

Lebanon needs to regain its sovereignty and only then can it consider building diplomatic relations with Syria based on mutual respect and national independence.