Friday, January 13, 2012

Voters, expect no change!

Here’s a bet I will make with anyone. The law governing Lebanon’s 2013 parliamentary elections will essentially be the 2009 law.

It’s an easy prediction to make, you say. You would be right. But judging from all the noise this week, as Interior Minister Marwan Charbel organized a conference at the Phoenicia Hotel to discuss his draft proposal for a new law, in coordination with the United Nations Development Program, you would imagine the contrary.

Last October, Charbel presented the outline of a draft law that would allocate seats on the basis of proportional representation. The size of electoral districts has yet to be decided and Charbel’s proposal offers several options. Ultimately, the government and parliament will decide. However, a vast majority of parliamentarians are members of blocs with absolutely no interest in altering the status quo. And the last thing they will endorse is proportional representation, which would allow minorities in the districts they dominate to win seats.

Let’s take as a given that they will find a way to derail proportional representation. The best way to do so is to simply avoid reaching agreement over it. This the blocs will do indirectly, not by rejecting proportionality, as this may be unpopular, but by failing to settle over the size of electoral districts, or some other aspect of the draft law. We saw hints of this direction at the Phoenicia conference, where considerable criticism was leveled at Charbel’s scheme.    

Having undermined proportional representation, the leading political forces will then reimpose the current electoral districts. While it’s true that some parties would prevail under different districting, others would not. For a broad consensus to be reached in parliament, everyone needs to be satisfied. That’s why there is a better than even chance that the districts will not change.

Let’s see why. Start with Baabda, Jezzine, Bint Jbeil, Nabatiyeh, Zahrani, Tyre, Marjayoun-Hasbayya, and Baalbek-Hermel. In all these districts, Hezbollah, Amal, the Aounists, or some combination thereof, have a headlock on seats. Michel Aoun has no impetus to agree to a district larger than the qada, since it ensures that he will do well in Jezzine and Baabda; Hezbollah will not challenge this, even if it can fare just as well in a larger constituency. Amal will go along with both, since it has no latitude to compete with Hezbollah.

Walid Jumblatt, too, approves of the current law. He accepts that Hezbollah and Aoun will select the Druze candidate in Baabda, but the 2009 law still means he can control Aley and the Shouf. Jumblatt’s Druze candidate in the West Beqaa, Wael Abu Faour, and in Beirut, Ghazi Aridi, rely on Sunni votes, while Sunnis make up a third of the Shouf electorate. That means that between now and election time the Druze leader must reconcile with Saad Hariri, who in all probability will form leading lists in the West Beqaa and Beirut.

That reconciliation will have electoral implications. Because Jumblatt cannot afford to be at odds with Hariri before the polls, expect the Druze leader to block all efforts by Aoun or Hezbollah to redraw district lines in Beirut to the former prime minister’s disadvantage.

Prime Minister Najib Mikati and President Michel Sleiman, who together with Jumblatt hold veto power in the government, would also likely oppose such steps, each for his own reasons: Mikati, because he, too, cannot allow his conflict with Hariri to fester, as he must protect his Sunni bona fides and seeks to avoid a bruising electoral contest in Tripoli; and Sleiman, because he doesn’t want Michel Aoun to benefit from gerrymandering in Beirut, which would aim to unify the Christian and Shia electorates.

Aoun as well cannot wish for better than the 2009 law. He still remains the most powerful Christian in Baabda, the Metn, Kisirwan, and Jbeil. Even if he has lost ground in the popular vote, his March 14 adversaries have arguably lost more, given the recent incoherence of the previous majority and Aoun’s ability to discredit the allies of Saad Hariri by playing on Christian fears of the Sunnis.

Michel al-Murr is not the powerhouse that he once was in the Metn, and has made overtures to the new majority. Aoun’s reliance on the Armenian vote in the district, as well as his support among Shia in Jbeil and Baabda provide him with decisive advantages. In the Kisirwan, a unified opposition to Aoun has yet to emerge, and would have less access to funding than the Aounists.

Finally, Saad Hariri will not abandon the 2009 law either. He should do very well in Beirut, if the districting stays the same, as well as in Tripoli, Akkar, Dinniyeh, Zahleh, and the West Beqaa. In Saida, he may have to deal with that new Salafist emanation, Sheikh Ahmad Assir, which raises numerous questions about how dynamics in the Sunni community will play out, given Hariri’s long absence and the conflict in Syria above all. Will the former prime minister have to include more Islamists on his lists? Will his influence remain intact if his financial woes continue? All interesting questions, but none will make him reconsider the kind of election law that he favors.

A final verdict on an election law will be shaped by events in Syria. That’s why we are unlikely to see consensus on a new law soon. But assume the 2013 election law will be a case of back to the future.

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