Litmus test
Upcoming parliamentary elections could heal Lebanon or shatter it

By Stacey Philbrick Yadav
Published May 26th 2005 in Cairo
On 29 May, the Lebanese people will elect a new Chamber of Deputies without foreign troops on their soil for the first time in 33 years. The elections, however, are bringing to surface the underlying fissures in society that, a decade and half after the civil war, still have to be resolved. The institutional compromises put in place to end the conflict have kept the peace until now, but at the price of locking sectarian conflicts in place and blocking the development of national politics. Eyes around the world watch Lebanon, according to Shia politician Ali Hamdan, because if Lebanon can’t make pluralism and coexistence work, no one can. “Lebanon is not a state, it is a message. It is a prototype for coexistence” he said. If this is to be true, these elections will be the test.

While devastated by the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Al Hariri in February, most Lebanese seem optimistic that this election will determine the fate of a newly independent Lebanon. That may be why debates over electoral regulations have become so pitched and why electoral alliances are changing quickly. With the start of the one-month, four-round election period, these controversies threaten to undermine not only the newfound unity forged in Martyr’s Square, but even the elections themselves.

The enemy of my enemy…

Alliances and lists are shifting daily. Less than a week before the polls open in Beirut, it is difficult for voters to know who will stand, let alone what they stand for. What is clear is that the traditional players are all in the game, and that many of the alliances appear to be as much about gaining distance from old enemies as making deals with friends, and of course, aligning with the “Martyr of Democracy and Independence,” Rafiq Al Hariri. Throughout the downtown district that he nearly single-handedly reconstructed following the Civil War, courtesy vans shuttle shoppers to and fro along a larger-than-life image of Hariri with his son’s electoral list superimposed on it and the words “With You…” emblazoned across the top.

Amid this cacophony, one man stands out. In late 2004, the Lebanese French daily L’Orient Le Jour dubbed Druze leader and head of the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) Walid Jumblatt the “barometer” of Lebanese politics. Many have accused the popular and press-savvy politician of being a political opportunist and swaying with the winds. But others claim—and with some cause—that Jumblatt is the wind, insofar as he moves an important electoral bloc, combining Druze sectarian interests with a socialist agenda.

While the Druze community is an esoteric sect that represents only 5.6 percent of voters, it is an important and flexible bloc and Jumblatt’s personal charisma, connections and media savvy mean that he is a man to be watched.

Jumblatt has become a vital component of the Opposition movement, and particularly critical to its transformation from a narrow Christian movement to a broader national force. Christian leaders, however, have been increasingly frustrated by some of the Druze chieftain’s recent moves, especially Jumblatt’s position on United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559, which calls for the withdrawal of Syrian troops and the disarmament of Hizbullah.

While the PSP participated in protests supporting the Syrian withdrawal, and backed the election law changes favored by the Christians, Jumblatt and his party have firmly held that Hizbullah’s disarmament is an issue for domestic debate only, and should not be part of a broader international agenda.

This “flexibility” has garnered criticism (first from pro-Syrian groups, then from the Opposition), but PSP politburo member Zaher Raad argues that this is not political equivocation so much as a question of Jumblatt’s attempt to “take advantage of the opportunities opened up by the international pressure of 1559” without supporting the whole Opposition platform.

Raad added that when Jumblatt appears to waffle, it is because his principal demands have been met, and “when you are victorious, you should be more moderate, be more open to compromise, and look for ways to ensure that everyone participates.” His detractors, however, accuse him of changing his position from one day to the next.

Tsunami politics

Sharing in this language of victory is General Michel Aoun, who returned from 14 years of exile in Paris to a tumultuous welcome on 7 May. It was the battles of Aoun’s group, the Free Patriotic Movement, against the Syrians and his subsequent defeat that finally led to the 1990 Syrian siege of Beirut and the disarming of the militias, the end of the Civil War.

Since his return, there is reason to believe that Aoun is ready to compromise, even with his take-no-prisoners method of political argument. On his agenda during his first week in Lebanon was a series of meetings with leaders from all of the major Muslim factions, and he appears to be taking Lebanese unity seriously in theory and in practice.

The significant exception to this conciliatory impulse is Aoun’s increasingly hostile relationship with Jumblatt. While it was Aoun himself who announced that his return would, in an impolitic turn of phrase, hit Lebanon “like a tsunami,” it is his political rival Jumblatt who has seized upon this and kept the image alive in public discourse.

Until recently, it looked as though Aoun himself would not stand in the coming parliamentary election, maintaining the option to accede to the Presidency should Emile Lahoud’s mandate be revoked after the elections. But throughout the past two weeks, he has also been negotiating with the Opposition bloc—and even Jumblatt himself—implying that his FPM candidates would run with the opposition in exchange for a series of post-election compromises on issues of political and economic reform. With his announcement on 23 May that he will indeed run for a seat in Mt. Lebanon, these negotiations have come to a close.

Meanwhile alliances are swirling and reforming, bringing together some strange bedfellows. Among the most talked about alliances are those that include two pairs of political heirs: Walid Jumblatt and Strida Geagea of the Christian Lebanese Forces, on the one hand, and Saad Eddin Al Hariri (Rafiq’s son) and Solange Gemayel on the other.

With Jumblatt and Aoun trading a series of public insults and jabs even before Aoun returned, it makes sense that Strida, the wife of Aoun’s imprisoned rival, Samir Geagea (see sidebar on p.18) would team up with his most vocal critic.

On the other side, Al Hariri needs to ensure that he will be able to draw enough support from Christian voters in Beirut, so filling his Maronite slot with the widow of assassinated Christian Phalange leader Bashir Gemayel is a way to pick up the Christian votes that aren’t aligned with Geagea’s Lebanese Forces or Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement.

Shifting on sand, the only thing that is certain is that similar political balances and bargains will be struck—and broken—in the coming weeks, ahead of the later rounds of elections in the South, the Beqaa Valley and Mt. Lebanon, and finally the North (on 5, 12 and 19 June respectively).

Big or small?

The single toughest issue polarizing the Lebanese electorate is the rules for the upcoming contest—which threaten to tear the whole country apart even before elections get going.

On 28 January, the Lebanese cabinet endorsed an electoral law for the 2005 parliamentary elections drafted by then-Interior Minister Suleiman Franjieh. It would have created smaller electoral districts and a controversial redistricting of Beirut.

The adoption of small electoral districts, or cazas, was problematic from the outset because it is at odds with provisions of the Taif Agreement that ended the 15-year civil war in Lebanon. Smaller electoral districts tend to produce more confessionally homogeneous electorates, and thus can encourage more extreme candidates.

The 1960 electoral law, which governed pre-war parliaments, used the caza system and is thought to have contributed to the polarization of Lebanese politics. The gradual deconfessionalization of Lebanese politics envisaged under the Taif Agreeement favored the adoption of large, evenly sized districts, or muhafazat.

The situation is complicated by electoral rules under which a fixed number of seats in parliament are designated for MPs on a sectarian basis (64 seats for Muslims, 64 seats for Christians, with subcategories within each bloc). In a system of small districts, which are likely to be reasonably homogeneous, candidates may only have to appeal to voters from their own sect. In the larger, more heterogeneous muhafazat, candidates would have to compete for votes from outside their own sect, ideally producing a more moderate range of political positions based on compromise and accommodation. The Taif vision of evenly sized muhafazat has yet to be fully implemented, with past electoral laws applying a combination of caza and muhafaza.

Generally speaking (and with some noteable exceptions), it is the Christian Opposition that most thoroughly favors the caza, and the Shia community that favors the muhafaza. The spiritual leader of the Shia community in Lebanon, a guide to both Amal and Hizbullah parties, Sayyid Muhammed Hussein Fadlallah, for example, has been unilateral in his position that “we reject the sectarian system because it makes Lebanon a series of non-united states (wilayat ghair mutahida).” In this sense, he is specifically referring to calls by people like Opposition candidate Gibran Tueni for “administrative decentralization,” a phrase often used hand-in-hand with the idea of territorial cantons.

Ideally, the parliament should have had more than three months to debate the ins and outs of the law and the press should have been able to scrutinize it in the public sphere. But on 14 February everything changed. The explosion that killed Rafiq Al Hariri near the St. George Hotel on the Beirut corniche shook the entire foundation of the system in a way that was both unanticipated and unprecedented.

Since parliament hasn’t had time to approve the 2005 law, the elections will go forward under the old 2000 law, which sets up a mixed system of small and large districts — an uneasy compromise that has critically undermined the legitimacy of the current parliament and threatens to do the same to the next.

Positions are sharply divided, with much of the Muslim leadership, like Sayyid Fadlallah, as well as former Sunni prime minister Salim Al Hoss, arguing for large districts and proportional representation, which would functionally put an end to Lebanon’s confessional compromise (see sidebar on page 16), while many of the groups that comprise the Opposition, like the Christian Kataib and the Maronite Lebanese Forces, called for small homogenous or even a federal system of semi-autonomous cantons. General Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement is an outlier, supporting the proportional representation/muhafaza solution, despite its largely Christian following.

Despite this and other fractures within the Opposition bloc, Christian leaders are still holding out some hope of reinstating the 1960 law and its smaller districts, but as the elections approach, this becomes less likely every day.

Christian fears

The basic position of the Opposition—called the Christian Opposition until late 2004, and still largely composed of Christian political leaders—is summarized by Maronite Patriarch Boutrous Nasrallah Sfeir. He has thrown his full support behind the so-called 1960 law, with its small districts, but without the controversial Beirut redistricting of the January draft law put forward by Franjieh. Without a special legislative session of parliament, however, none of these changes can be debated or passed, leaving the 2000 law as the de facto law for the 2005 election.
The Opposition complains that the 2000 law, with its mixture of the small cazas and larger muhafazat, was designed largely to break the back of the Christian Opposition, particularly in the Maronite enclave of Bcharré, in the North. Speaking with Cairo about possible compromises, Gibran Tueni, an Opposition candidate in Beirut and editor of the popular Lebanese daily Al Nahar, explained that, “because we don’t have time, because we think that this parliament is not credible to be able to talk about this project, we need to go back to one law which was credible at the time… which is not the law of 2000, but the law of 1960, with some small cosmetic [changes].”

While all agree that 2000 was not ideal, some are afraid that the 1960 law will only allow for an even more fractured electorate, with a more extreme politics of local personalities. Ali Hamdan, a senior member of the Shia Amal Party, admits that the major issue is that “political leadership is in personalities, not institutions,” but he, as others in the Shia community, differs on how he thinks this problem should be addressed.

“People trust success, they trust people. They don’t trust institutions, largely because of the lack of them,” he said. The challenge, Hamdan argues, is to develop an electoral law that will encourage the development of broad, national parties and durable institutions.

For Hamdan, this means adopting the muhafaza system and gradual deconfessionalization. For Tueni, or the PSP’s Raad, small districts are seen as producing credible leadership and, in turn, credible parties.

Standing against the Opposition is the mainly Shia Ain Al Tine gathering, a loose coalition that includes members of both the Shia Amal and Hizbullah as well as some prominent politicians from other sectarian groups, under the leadership of Shia Speaker of the Parliament Nabih Berri. This bloc calls for the large muhafaza electoral districts and favors proportional representation and gradual deconfessionalization in keeping with the Taif Agreement.

Critics of their approach maintain that this is an easy position for the largely-Shia leadership of Ain Al Tine to adopt, since the numbers are on their side. The Shia are currently estimated to be the largest single sectarian grouping in Lebanon, comprising as much as 40 percent of the total population. The Christian community is estimated to be only about 30 percent, and a proportional representation system would undoubtedly decrease their share of seats in parliament. Since the Christians have seen a consistent scale-back of their institutionalized privilege since the civil war, they may not be ready to make what they see as further concessions in the name of coexistence.

While the outcome of the elections—or even the final electoral rules—is far from certain, what is clear at this point is that someone is going to feel like they’ve lost. Perhaps Beirut-based Daily Star columnist Rami Khouri put it best when he cautioned that “Lebanese politics right now is like a game of musical chairs. When the music stops, not everyone will have a seat.”