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Lebanon: Sectarian Politics and Electoral Unrest

In the early days of Lebanon’s protest movement, back in the fall of 2019, one of the main demands of the protesters was the end to the sectarian political system, and by extension the electoral system that enabled it. In recent weeks the protests have taken on a much stronger focus on socio-economic factors as the country’s economic situation has rapidly deteriorated (understandably so, as voting systems aren’t much of a concern when you can’t feed your family), but the question of electoral reform in Lebanon remains an important one.

Lebanon’s political system is very specifically apportioned, with each major office and seat being reserved for members of a certain religious sect. Parliament is divided 50/50 between Muslims and Christians, with 27 of 128 seats reserved for Sunnis, 27 for Shias, 34 for Maronite Christians, 14 for Greek Orthodox Christians, eight for Druze, and rest divided between various smaller religious communities. The Prime Minister must always be a Sunni, the President (elected by parliament) must always be a Maronite, and the Speaker of Parliament must always be a Shia. Various other important political and military offices are allocated to other sects.

This sectarian apportionment of parliamentary seats is facilitated through a highly convoluted electoral system. Under the 2017 ‘Adwan law’, the country is divided into 15 constituencies, most of which are further divided into 2-4 subdivisions. In each of these constituencies, there will be a number of seats for certain confessional groups, corresponding roughly to the constituency’s demographics. For example, in the Beirut II district, which roughly covers the western portion of the city, there are six seats are for Sunnis, two for Shias, one for Druze, one for Orthodox Christians, and one for Protestants.

Candidates run on a list comprised of one or more parties that contest all or some of the seats in a district. Each list is different by district, and parties that are allied in one district might be rivals in another. For example in the 2018 legislative election, with the ‘Future for Beirut’ list, Saad Hariri’s Sunni Future Movement contested 10 of the 11 seats in Beirut II, and Walid Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party contested the Druze seat. The main force opposing them was the ‘Unity of Beirut’ list. On this, Hezbollah and their ally Amal contested one of the Shia seats each, while the Christian Free Patriotic Movement contested the Protestant seat, and three other independent and minor party candidates contested the Sunni seats. ‘Unity of Beirut’ did not run any candidates for the remaining seats. In cases where there is more than one seat for a certain sect in a constituency (such as Beirut II’s six Sunni seats), the candidates do not run for a specific seat, but any of them.

The electoral law passed in 2017 was designed to bring a degree of proportionality to the electoral system. The previous election in 2009 was majoritarian one, in which the coalition that received the most votes in each constituency won all the seats. Under the new law, voters indicate two preferences on their ballot. One is for the list they support, and the other is for a candidate on that list. The number of seats in the constituency each list gets is proportional to the amount of votes for the list, while the specific candidates are elected based on how many preferential votes they got compared to the other candidates on the list.

This creates proportionality within the districts, but it ends after that. The main issue arises from the 50/50 split between Muslim and Christian seats in the parliament. Muslims and Christians no longer have an even population—as was the case back when the 50/50 split was introduced—and haven’t for some time. Most estimates place the demographics of the country at around 1/3 Sunni, 1/3 Shia, and 1/3 Christian, give or take a bit, with the other sects making up the rest. Because the constituencies are gerrymandered to group co-religionists together as much as possible (more on this later), this leads to the underrepresentation of Muslim voters.

The Shia Hezbollah came first in the popular vote in 2018, winning 16.8%, but only won 12 out of 128 possible MPs, coming fifth in the seat count. In contrast, the Christian FPM and its smaller allies won 15.8% of the vote and 29 seats, making it the largest bloc in parliament. In districts where there are Shia seats, Hezbollah wins massive numbers—in fact, of the 20 candidates who received the most preferences, 10 were Hezbollah, one a Hezbollah-aligned independent Shia, and six were running for Amal. The other three were Sunni, including then-Prime Minister Saad Hariri.


Distribution of seats by district, by Soman, with (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The highest-voted candidate across the country was Hezbollah’s parliamentary leader Mohammed Raad in Nabatieh, with 43,797 preferential votes. The lowest-voted candidate to be elected to Parliament was independent Hezbollah ally Eddie Demirjian, who won the Armenian Orthodox seat in Zahle with only 77 votes. Despite Demirjian coming behind all the other Armenian Orthodox candidates in his district (one won 3,851 votes), because of his list’s performance relative to the other lists he was elected—ostensibly to represent the Armenian Orthodox community in Zahle, only a tiny fraction of whom voted for him.

The un-proportionality also disadvantages parties or coalitions trying to run nationwide campaigns. The 2018 election was contested by the ‘civil society movement’, or Kilna Watani, a coalition of newer parties and groups that rejected the political establishment and the sectarian system. They ran candidates across the country, of every sect in almost every area. They won 2.55% of the vote, but because it was spread out over so many candidates, they only won one seat. In contrast, smaller parties that have a regional base, like the Marada Movement, which is based in Zgharta in the North, or with a small sectarian base, like the Armenian Tashnag, can win more seats with fewer votes.

The 2017 law ultimately incentivises sectarianism, because the constituencies have been gerrymandered in such a way that only six out of 15 are religiously diverse. This was done mostly by combining some previously-existing districts and sometimes altering borders. The most egregious example is with the districts of Saida and Jezzine, the former largely Sunni and the latter Christian, which were combined into one constituency—despite not bordering each other—in order to not have them joined with the other areas in the South which are predominately Shia. Thus, parties can largely focus on winning votes from their own sects and not having to worry as much about getting broad, cross-confessional support.

One serious effect the 2017 law had is that it made blocs in parliament much more confessionally homogenous, in contrast to earlier electoral law, where by winning a district a party or coalition would get all its seats, no matter the sect. After 2009, 12 of the Future Movement’s 33 MPs were non-Sunnis. Now only one out of 20 is. Three out of nine Progressive Socialist Party MPs are non-Druze, compared with six out of 11 previously. The novel system allows parties to consolidate their sectarian support, which in turn strengthens the patronage networks that keep them in power.

For the reasons outlined above, most Lebanese political leaders are not interested in meaningful electoral reform. If they do change the law again, it will likely be in such a way that benefits them, not in the interest of making the system more democratic. But should they want to, on a technical level it would very much be possible.

In the past, some parties and groups have floated the idea of creating one single nationwide constituency, with proportional representation, not unlike what many other countries use. To keep the representation of the different confessional groups, it could use a list system with confessional quotas—for example, for every 10 candidates on the list, at least two must be Christian, two Sunni, two Shia, one Druze. Parties could place their favoured candidates at the top of the list to ensure they’re elected, but if they end up with a larger bloc in parliament, it will be more diverse, reducing the incentives for sectarianism. It would also benefit parties that run cross-sectarian campaigns, making it easier to find candidates that appeal to their voters. In short, a guarantee that one person equals one vote, while keeping religious balance in a diverse country.

A new system need not be this specific one—this is just to offer an example. Lebanon has had extensive debate on electoral reform, with many different proposals being made, and will likely continue to in the future. The problem lies in the fact that traditional parties and sectarian interests approach the topic with the intent to maximise their own electoral prospects. The 2017 law was born out of a long process of compromise, and not a compromise in the interests of democratising the system, but one where none of the powerbrokers felt too threatened by the changes.

The catch-22 is that in order to change the electoral system, the political class will likely need to change, but it’s a lot harder to change the political class under the current law. The change, however, is not impossible. In the coming months, we will continue to see protesters in the streets pressuring the government over the economy, politics, and sectarianism, and they will push the country in unexplored directions.

Edited by Dylan Marshall,
A guest article from Asia Elects.

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