Friday, October 5, 2012

The election law debate wastes our time

If there were any doubts as to how futile the debate over a new election law has become, they were dispelled when the parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, declared that he supported the formation of a parliamentary subcommittee to discuss such legislation. That’s because the body will only push the discussion into a labyrinth of recrimination, without an exit.

As usual, when it comes to altering the basis of Lebanese elections, there is much chatter and gnashing of teeth leading to stalemate, all of this ensuring that the old law will be revived. That’s not to say that the political actors in the country are stupid. Some parties have an interest in putting forth proposals they know will be rejected in order to cash in politically by accepting a substitute project later on.

What is on the table today? Two things in particular: acceptance of the principal of proportional representation and the ultimate size of electoral districts. The government has passed a draft election law based on proportionality, with Hezbollah in the forefront. The party has calculated that proportionality would damage March 14’s prospects in several key districts, above all Beirut, whereas Hezbollah expects to lose little or no ground in areas under its control.

Saad Hariri, the head of the Future Movement and the strongman of the March 14 coalition, rejects a proportional vote and any redistricting that would reduce his influence in Beirut. The Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt, agrees, for reasons of his own. Together, the two men’s blocs, Future and the National Struggle Front, do not make up a majority in parliament. However, their combined influence, and the fact that no one in March 14 will stand against Hariri (except temporarily to extract political concessions from him), suggests that what the former prime minister wants, he will get. And together with Jumblatt, March 14 does hold a majority at voting time.

Hariri is said to support the March 14 project for small districts. The reality is that he knows nothing will come of it. This allows him to put up a united front as the small-district system would be benefit the opposition. But it will never pass, and anyway would not please Jumblatt, whose power comes from pasting together broad candidate lists that he can form in Aley and the Shouf. That’s why Hariri loses nothing by backing the March 14 idea, then waiting for it to evaporate.

Then we had that strange principle that Bkirki tried to peddle, namely a law that would allow only Christians to vote for Christian candidates. This echoed an earlier initiative presented by representatives of the Greek Orthodox community. The fact that the person behind that proposition was Elie Firzli, a prominent ally of Syria, was apparently not suspicious enough to warrant a second look from most of the Christian participants in the Bkirki deliberations.

Yet what is the Greek Orthodox plan, and with it the desire of the Christians to alone to elect Christian parliamentarians, except a fresh nail in the coffin of national unity? The Syrians have no problems with this, but what was Maronite Patriarch Beshara al-Rai doing championing the formula? The Maronite Church’s role is to defend inter-Lebanese concord, not exacerbate inter-Lebanese discord.

If a parliamentary panel is set up to discuss the election law, all it will do is highlight how far apart are the politicians. Assuming the speaker and Hezbollah cannot get a law based on proportional representation, they lose little by returning to the 2009 law. Both Hezbollah and Amal are bound to win a lion’s share of votes in Shiite-majority districts, whichever election law prevails. The open question is how well their Christian ally, Michel Aoun, will do.

Aoun’s disastrous recent visit to Jbeil showed that his Christian backing appears to have declined in a hitherto safe district. As for the Keserwan, where Aoun was elected, the Aounists are now openly admitting that their appeal has eroded. And in the Metn, the general was already strongly contested during the 2009 elections.

But does this mean Aoun will lose? Not at all certain. He will continue to enjoy a large Shiite bloc vote in his favor in Jbeil. In the Metn, much will depend on how the Armenian electorate votes, so Aoun must now focus on ensuring that the Tashnaq Party remains on his side. In Baabda, he will benefit from an endlessly expandable Shiite vote, in areas where election monitoring is very difficult. And in Jezzine, Aoun may still win out in that his main rival is Berri, for whom Christians in the area are reluctant to vote.

Therefore, Aoun, too, is not overly disturbed by the 2009 law. And if the law is acceptable to Hezbollah, Aoun, Berri, Hariri and Jumblatt, then we can assume it will remain in place, while the cacophony today makes agreement over an alternative law highly improbable. So, follow the election law conversation at your peril. It’s a waste of time.

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