Although Lebanon's 2009 parliamentary elections were undeniably a significant step forward in the evolution of transparent and credible democratic institutions, they also illustrated that both poles of the country's multifarious governing elite are prepared to resist the kind of transformative electoral reforms long advocated by civil society activists. Background Lebanon's consociational political system distributes fixed allotments of executive and legislative power among the country's main sectarian groups.

The offices of president, prime minister, and parliament speaker are respectively reserved for Maronite Christians, Sunni Muslims, and Shiite Muslims. Seats in parliament are divided among nearly a dozen communities by quota, half for various Christian denominations and half for Muslim sects. Although the 1989 Taif Accord that brought an end to Lebanon's 15-year civil war called for the abolition of political sectarianism in principle, in practice it preserved the confessional power-sharing system, revising only the respective allotments of each community.

The raison d'etre of Lebanon's power-sharing system is to provide each group with a political safeguard against domination by the others - not insignificant in a region where multi-confessional states have frequently fallen victim to mono-confessional authoritarian regimes - but it has several well-known flaws. The most serious is that it turns the state into an arena for sectarian conflicts to develop and play out, rather than a platform for national integration and reconciliation.

A second consequence of institutionalizing sectarian divisions within the political system is that it strengthens the power of confessional leaders. The constitution does not specify a particular electoral system for filling seats in parliament. Under Lebanon's majoritarian block vote and multi-member district electoral system, each voter is allowed to cast as many votes as the number of seats allocated in his/her electoral district. Each seat is then won by the candidate who is awarded the highest number of electoral preferences within his own confessional group.[1] Changes to Lebanon's electoral system over the years have mainly been limited to redrawing district boundaries to the benefit of ascendant political forces. During the Syrian occupation, districts were gerrymandered so that most Christian seats were elected in majority non-Christian districts.

The structural foundations of political sectarianism are further entrenched by a range of procedural attributes of its electoral system that work to the advantage of confessional leaders by enabling vote-buying and undermining the secrecy of the vote. The Boutros Commission In August 2005, the government appointed a National Commission for a New Electoral Law, comprised of academics, lawyers, and civil society activists, under the chairmanship of Fouad Boutros. In collaboration with the United Nations Development Program and various domestic and international NGOs, the Boutros Commission formulated a draft law outlining an array of electoral reforms that meet with broad consensus. Although the draft law was released in May 2006,[2] it languished for over two years as a result of the July-August 2006 Israeli military campaign in Lebanon and subsequent outbreak of an eighteen-month political crisis, during which the Hezbollah-Amal Shiite bloc and Michel Aoun's predominantly Christian Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) tried unsuccessfully to topple the ruling March 14 coalition through a campaign of mass protests.

The crisis escalated from peaceful protests to armed confrontation in May 2008, when Hezbollah reacted to a government attempt to shut down its communication network by seizing parts of West Beirut controlled by Sunni militiamen loyal to the late Rafiq Hariri's Future Movement, sparking worst episodes of violence since the civil war. To solve the conflict, the parties met in Doha, Qatar, and agreed to the formation of national unity government, a compromise candidate for president, and "to examine and discuss" the Boutros Commission draft law.[3] Over the summer, the Lebanese MPs debated each provision of the draft law. The result was a new parliamentary electoral law (PEL), approved in September, that discarded the most crucial reforms recommended by the Boutros Commission.

The discrepancies between the two are revealing. Structural Reforms The most sweeping proposal of the Boutros Commission was the introduction of a mixed system of electing the 128-member parliament. Although confessional quotas would remain the same, 51 representatives were to be chosen with a proportional system at the muhafaza (governorate) level, while the other 77 deputies would be selected according to the current majoritarian system at the qada (small administrative district) level. The introduction of proportional representation would work to the advantage of nonconfessional groups that don't have enough support within any one confessional group to win election. The Communist party, for example, is very influential in Lebanese intellectual life, but has never won a seat in parliament.

The PEL failed to adopt the commission's proposal to introduce proportional representation. Instead, it retained the system as is, while revising the demarcation of electoral districts. The new law replaces the 14 electoral districts established by the 2000 PEL with 26 smaller districts that largely coincide with the existing qadas.[4] This provision was adopted to ensure that the proportion of Christian candidates elected in majority Christian districts is roughly en par with the proportions for other sects. Under the previous electoral law, 38 of 64 Christian seats were in majority Muslim districts, while only 8 of 64 Muslim seats were in majority Christians districts. Under the new law, just 17 Christian seats are in Muslim districts.[5] The creation of more numerous and smaller districts also reduces the ability of political coalitions to win large blocs of seats with a narrow majority of the vote, making seat allocation somewhat more proportional.[6] However, the increased number of mono-confessional electoral districts also has the effect of further strengthening sectarian dynamics,[7] as is it is no longer necessary for candidates to appeal outside of their own confessional constituencies to win election.

Rather than reducing the role of sectarianism in politics, the new law arguably served to strengthen it. Since Christians constitute only 40% of the electorate, concentrating more of their 50% allotment of parliamentary seats in monoconfessional districts also compromises the equality of votes. The average number of registered voters per seat ranged from 19,471 to 23,115 under the old electoral law,[8] but ranges from 17,845 (in the Christian district of Kesrwan) to 41,132 (in the Shiite district of Bint Jbeil) under the new one. [9] Procedural Reforms The most important procedural reform in the Boutros draft law was the introduction of uniform official ballots. Under the current system, voters are allowed to use any piece of paper so long as the names of the candidate they select are clearly legible.

This seemingly innocuous innovation is a critical enabler for rampant vote buying and intimidation of constituents. Political coalitions distribute their own specially tailored ballots to clients and supporters, using different colors, dimensions, and fonts for different voting blocs (e.g. particular villages and families) so that their poll monitors can trace where votes are coming from when ballots are counted. This greatly compromises the secrecy of the vote, makes it easy to ensure that the money invested in buying votes does not go to waste, and strengthens the power of local political bosses by making the "services" they provide to candidates verifiable.[10] Although civil society activists universally agree that the introduction of a uniform official ballot is critical to the integrity of the electoral process, the provision was rejected by fifty of seventy MPs present when it came up for a vote in parliament.[11] "Alarm bells should be going off," said Doreen Khoury, coordinator of the Civil Campaign for Electoral Reform (CCER).[12] Parliament also rejected the Boutros Commission's recommendation to count votes at the qada level, rather than at individual polling stations, as this would have greatly impeded the ability of party poll monitors to track bought votes.[13] The new PEL did approve some procedural reforms proposed by the commission, such as the use of transparent ballot boxes and inking of fingers,[14] but these are of far less consequence than the rejected provisions. Ballot stuffing has not been the primary form of electoral fraud in Lebanon (at least not since the Syrian withdrawal in 2005).

The PEL adopted the Boutros Commission's recommendation that elections take place during one day,[15] rather than over a sequence of consecutive weeks for each region, reducing the chances for armed groups to disrupt the electoral process if initial results are unfavorable. The PEL also provided for expatriate voting, though implementation of this measure was delayed until 2013, ostensibly because the logistics were too daunting to put in place before the election.

The PEL also contained provisions for regulation of the media, which was previously unchecked. A related key achievement of the new law is to render campaign financing more transparent, by requiring candidates to account for the money they are receiving and investing in their election campaigns, and by setting ceilings for campaign-related expenditures.[16] However, despite the importance of this measure, it did little to make campaign financing more transparent. The PEL pointedly neglected to provide for an independent electoral commission.

It created a Supervisory Committee on Electoral Campaigns (SCEC), but it has authority only over campaign finance and media regulations and lacks enforcement power. The appointment of Ziad Baroud, a widely respected election expert, as interior minister was intended to compensate for the lack of an independent electoral commission, and to some extent it did - his management of the electoral process was universally praised. Assessing the Impact of the PEL The most beneficial aspect of the PEL was not its content, but the fact that all major political forces agreed on it beforehand, boosting the perceived legitimacy of the electoral process. Consequently, there was little election-related violence and voter turnout was much higher than in 2005.[17] The election was also far more competitive than its predecessor. Whereas a fifth of the seats were elected uncontested in 2005, only a handful were elected uncontested in 2009.

Although the electoral reforms implemented thus far and the conduct of the election itself are positive steps toward enhancing the accountability and transparency of the system, they failed to address the core problems that undermine the integrity of the Lebanese political system.

Due to the failure to introduce a national uniform ballot and an independent electoral commission with real enforcement power, vote-buying and foreign funding of candidates were still widespread practices across all political parties.[18] According to the EU team that monitored the elections, "financial resources played an excessively large role in the campaign and new regulations on spending have yet to have any notable effect on this phenomenon."[19] The rejection of the mixed-representation system and mutli-confessional districts proposed by the Boutros Commission forfeited the opportunity to further the Taif Accord's goal of moving beyond political sectarianism Though Interior Minister Baroud called the new PEL a "cup half full,"[20] few civil society activists would agree that the pursuit of electoral reform in Lebanon has hit the half way mark yet. Most are determined to bring public pressure to bear on the recalcitrant political establishment to change this before the 2013 elections.
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