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Lebanon tackles electoral reform

Lebanon tackles electoral reform

by Henri Bou-Saab in Beirut for

It is coming up to mid-summer in Lebanon.

The coastal cities of Tripoli, Beirut and Sidon are very hot during the daytime and everyone looks forward to the evenings to enjoy social gatherings and their families without the pressure of the heat.

For those interested in the development of our democracy and building a stronger society, there is plenty to talk about around the dinner table in the evening breeze.

One is what to do next about our antiquated electoral law.

No one can say that citizens have been short-changed in their choice of candidates and political parties in the 79 years since our first parliamentary elections, back in 1927.

We have the oldest secret ballot parliamentary system in the Middle East and one of the common jokes here is that there are 130 parties in the 128-member parliament.

Unlike the State of Israel, which forbids most of its people who are Moslem or Christian from voting or even living in their own country and instead leaves them stranded in refugee camps in neighbouring countries, the Republic of Lebanon’s parliament has always represented all of its main communities.

Like New Zealand, which established some guaranteed seats for Maori to ensure there would always be at least some Maori voice in the mainly European society, seats in the Lebanese parliament were originally allocated to the ensure the minorities would have their voice heard.

Because it is a country of minorities with no majority, that means that seats are allocated half each for Christians and Moslems, and guranteed representation within those subgroups for the different branches of the main religions; Shiia and Sunni Moslem, Druze, Maronite and Greek Catholics, Greek Orthodox and Protestants.

But unlike New Zealand where a person on the Maori roll in one election can freely choose every few years whether to stay on the Maori roll or join the majority roll, in Lebanon citizens since 1927 have been stuck with the group they were born into until the day they die.

Over the years, that has been good at ensuring the communities are all represented in parliament, it is true, but it has also acted against people thinking more broadly about the good of the whole society outside of their own sect.

Many younger people, and plenty of older people as well, want big changes to the voting system to help the country move forward.

It is in this context that the officials’ committee responsible for drafting a new electoral law has just presented a 129-point plan to the Prime Minister.

The proposed new law, I’ve not read it but only seen media summaries of it, proposes a mixed-member voting system which includes aspects of the current first-past-the-post geographic-based electorate system together with proportional representation.

It also proposes lowering the voting age, letting the tens of thousands of Lebanese who live overseas participate in the democracy,, establishing a stronger body to oversee the voting process than currently exists - one that isn’t so dominated by the political party establishments. - and a compulsory quota of at least 30 percent for women in parties’ electoral lists.

Some of the establishment parties have rubbished the proposed changes saying the mixed member system is far to complicated.

The ones saying that are the chauvinistic ones that have always got their support from narrow electoral bases, that is almost exclusively from within their own religious sects.

For them, the changes proposed are too radical and too threatening of their own sources of power.

But for those wanting a more secular, rational society - a society like the one I lived in when I studied at Victoria University - the feeling is that the changes don’t go nearly far enough and don’t take the country fast enough away from the "sectarian-based" or "confessional-based" system around which politics has always been based.

Parliament will have a great deal of fun in the months ahead dealing with the proposals.

No one will want to completely reject the reforms because they must know that an overwhelming majority of Lebanese will punish them at the ballot box if they show themselves to be too backward and insular.


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