The New Electoral Law
The law No. 44 on the Election of the Members of the Parliament published on 17 June 2017 paves the way for the first parliamentary election in 8 years. These elections are now scheduled for 6 May 2018. Current members of Parliament were elected in 2009 for what was meant as a four-year term but remained in office for five additional years after Parliament extended its mandate three times in a row in 2013, 2014 and 2017.
For the first time in its political history, Lebanon will use a proportional list-voting system. It is complex to the extent that the ability to project results proportionally in the allocation of seats will be highly limited. This is because of several factors, including relatively small electoral districts (compounded by the subdivision of districts in sub-districts) and the confessional quota. It will not be easy for parties and voters to understand how the results of the preferential vote are translated into seats. In short, there is a “lottery” aspect to the new electoral system.
The Legal Reform
Since the last elections in June 2009, the political system has been under severe domestic and international strain. The country is yet to find a sustainable consensus on the reform of the political system and the restoration of its institutions. The state apparatus, including Parliament, remains too weak to provide a framework for discussing key policy issues and reaching decisions. The ability to make compromises largely belongs to heads of religious communities and often takes place outside state institutions. In that sense, Parliament is not viewed as truly law-making institution as its role is often perceived as ratifying decisions made outside its premises.
Although most political parties had, since 2009, rejected holding new legislative elections based on the existing system (the 2008 election law with its 26 electoral districts), there were fundamental disagreements between them over the nature of the new electoral system, the size of the electoral districts and the issue of preferential voting. Discussions dragged on until the last minute. In June 2017, an agreement was eventually reached, days before the end of the legislature’s term on 20 June, which avoided catapulting the country into another political crisis. To reach an agreement on the new law, it took Lebanese political actors four years of “regular” parliamentary time, four more years of “extended” parliamentary time, two Presidents, four governments, more than two years of presidential vacuum and a little less than one year of governmental vacuum.
The key hallmarks of the new electoral system can be summarised as follows:
- The electoral map will be divided into 15 electoral districts (instead of 26 districts in the 2009 elections). Each electoral district may have at least one district, and seats are distributed among the sub-districts.
- The seats remain allocated to confessions (64 each for the Christian and Muslim communities), and within each confession they are further subdivided into 11 confessional branches (four within Islam and seven within Christianity);
- Citizens are registered to vote at the place of their family’s origin, rather than their actual place of residence. The election register does not reflect the demographic reality. This practice is recurrently being criticised, but remains “untouchable”. Citizens naturalised for less than 10 years can neither vote nor stand as candidates. Military personnel, including conscripts, cannot vote. The minimum voting age remains 21 years despite several attempts to reduce it to 18 years.
- The bloc vote plurality system is replaced with a list proportional electoral system using an electoral quotient (Hare quota) and the largest remainder method for allocating seats to lists, in the first phase, and to individual candidates in the second phase. Seats are allocated proportionally across the lists considering the confessional denomination and the regional allocation of seats (i.e. the distribution of seats among sub-districts). Only lists that reach the quotient are eligible to seat allocation.
- Voters have two votes: they vote for a list of candidates and for one individual candidate on the same list (preferential vote) competing for a seat in their sub-district (or the district if there are no sub-districts). Candidates form lists at least 40 days prior to election day, and these lists must comply with the seat allocation of electoral districts as well as with the confessional distribution of these seats. While lists can be incomplete, they must include a minimum of 3 candidates per district.
- For the first time, Lebanese citizens living abroad will be allowed to vote at embassies, consulates or other locations, provided they are registered in the Lebanese civil registry. There is no separate district for them, and while the law allocates 6 seats to them (3 for Christians and 3 for Muslims), the votes of non-resident voters will be distributed in-country, depending on where they are registered in Lebanon. In the elections following the 2018 parliamentary elections, 6 additional seats will be added to the 128 seats (which will make a Parliament with 134 MPs), but the law does not specify how this will work.
- As in 2009, voting will be carried out using official ballot papers provided by the Ministry of the Interior and Municipalities (hereafter “MOIM”) for every district and distributed to the polling stations staff along with the elections material. The official ballot papers will include the names of all lists and their members.
- The election campaign begins 90 days before election day. The media regulations applicable to election campaigning remained largely unchanged. The same goes for the regulations on campaign spending by candidates.
- A permanent Supervisory Commission for Elections (replacing the Supervisory Commission for Electoral Campaigns) was set up. While MOIM remains in charge of organising the elections, the Supervisory Commission was granted a slightly extended mandate, but remains primarily tasked to supervise compliance with campaign finance, media and advertising regulations. According to the new law, and in contrast to the previous one, the Commission is established as an independent body, but it will depend how this will be reflected in practice.
Although the new law is mostly in line with international standards on democratic elections, it is problematic in some respects. Furthermore, while it introduces long-demanded elements of proportionality, it does not endorse a fully proportional system. For instance, it adds preferential voting but combines it with parameters that make it unpredictable. Also, it generates inequalities in the weight of votes because of the considerable fluctuations from one district to another in the ratio of votes per seat and the eligibility quota for seat allocation. In some districts, the votes will have double the influence of votes than in other districts. Ultimately, the degree of proportionality could considerably differ from one district to another, as the level of competition may vary from one seat to another. On all these aspects, it remains to be seen how the new law will work in practice.
The law retains all the positive changes made in 2008 (campaign spending regulations, media regulations, permanent voter register, establishment of an electoral commission with supervisory powers, etc.) but does not bring about changes on problematic issues, such as the ban on the vote of citizens naturalised for less than 10 years (a distinction introduced in the 2008 law), voters’ registration at the place of family origin and the ban on military voting.
As the new law will most likely produce “losers” and “winners”, a debate on a revisited electoral law may be launched following the next elections. It is essential that the practice of late amendments driven by short-term political objectives and ad hoc interests be relinquished. This leads to defective laws that require further amendments with no prospects for stabilisation of the electoral framework. Stability of the law is essential to the credibility of the electoral process. The next stage should now be to create favourable conditions for a full-fledged proportional system as well as consolidating and rationalising the legal framework.
This would require reducing the current voting inequalities and making steps towards the abolition of the confessional quota. While the confessional arrangements are recurrently presented as a distinctive trait of the Lebanese society aimed at defusing tensions, their entrenchment in the electoral system rather serves to perpetuate these tensions and increase, in the mid or long-term, the potential for conflict.
Electoral reform must be based on inclusive, systematic, transparent and genuine consultations. Proposed changes, particularly on the most sensitive issues, such as the electoral system and the drawing of electoral districts, must be discussed with political parties, opposition leaders, independent candidates, civil society organisations representing voters’ interests, election management bodies, the media and the public.
The key recommendations of this assessment are summarised as follows:
- In light of the lessons learnt from the upcoming elections, the new electoral system should be reviewed to yield the full benefits usually associated with a proportional voting system. This should be a transparent process that defines larger districts with no subdivisions and alleviates voting inequalities. This would imply that the role of confessions in political life be reduced.
- A fully independent permanent election commission should be established with an extended role in the organisation of the electoral process (particularly regarding the registration of candidacies), clearer and longer terms of office for its members, mandatory gender balance in its membership, increased monitoring, enforcement powers and its own budget.
- Steps should be taken to allow voters to cast their vote in their place of residence instead of the place of their family origin. Administrative procedures should not be a deterrent for citizens who wish to register where they live.
- Steps should be taken to define eligibility criteria that do not include the requirement for candidates to be affiliated with one of the officially recognised religious sects.
- To ensure transparency and confidence in the electoral process, the breakdown of the results per polling station should be published with the aggregate results immediately after the elections. It should be kept regularly updated.
- Special measures must be taken to end the chronic underrepresentation of women in Lebanese political life and boost their participation in elected and appointed public positions, and not only in the Lebanese Parliament.
A detailed list with all recommendations can be found at the end of each section.
Scope of the Assessment
This report assesses the legal framework governing the election of the members of Parliament in Lebanon in light of international standards on democratic elections. It focuses on the Law No. 44 “Election of the Members of Parliament” published in the Official Gazette No. 27 on 17 June 2017, which replaces the Law No. 25 published in the Official Gazette No. 41 on 9 October. It does not include an exhaustive review of other pieces of legislation on related matters such as political parties, the freedom of expression, the freedom of media or the freedom of assembly.
In the absence of an official translation, the current analysis is based on an unofficial English translation of the above-mentioned law. As such, some observations might not be entirely accurate.
This report is published in the framework of the project « An Agenda for Decentralisation – Local Governance in Lebanon », funded by the German Federal Foreign Office.
What you need to know about Lebanon’s new electoral law:
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