LEBANON: Activists: New Election Law Needed to Maintain Unity

Wednesday, December 14, 2011
The Daily Star
Western Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 

Activists warned the government Tuesday against failing to adopt a new electoral law that would provide better representation during national parliamentary elections, saying that repeating past mistakes would further divide the country along sectarian lines.

“Once we adopt a proportional representation system, minorities in every sect will also have their share in the Parliament,” said former Baabda MP and member of the Lebanese Civil Gathering, Salah Harakeh.

Harakeh also said that ideological differences between different political groups would no longer cause inter-sectarian conflict.

Representatives of non-governmental organizations urged officials to swiftly approve the draft law, presented by Interior Minister Marwan Charbel to Cabinet Monday, in order to give the necessary adjustment time to both voters and candidates ahead of the upcoming 2013 parliamentary elections.

Several hundred activists rallying for a new electoral system gathered at the UNESCO Palace in Beirut for a news conference Tuesday, which drew applause and counter-arguments from various pro-democracy organizations: all part of the national campaign to adopt an electoral based on proportional representation.

The activists, the majority of whom were women, also called for the draft to include clauses which would lower the voting age to 18 from 21, impose a 30 percent quota for women, increase the transparency of elections and create an independent committee to oversee the electoral process.

Although there seems to be general agreement among the activists of an electoral system based on proportional representation, many still object to part of the draft law which would allow a member of one sect to vote for representatives of another sect.

Others argue for a one man one vote system, in which every Lebanese would vote only for one candidate of their own sect.

Fadia Kiwan, activist and the head of Political Science Institute at St. Joseph University in Beirut said that the time has come to put an end to the sectarian system, which she said had a destructive role.

“A political system that is simply based on inheritance of political power is not a democratic system ... a political system that does not facilitate accountability is not a true democratic system,” said Kiwan, adding that it is unfortunate Lebanon has remained static amid the wave of democratization sweeping the Arab world.

Following the ousting of several authoritarian regimes throughout the region, democratic elections have begun in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and Qatar, and once reforms are set in place, Yemen and Libya will also see democratic elections.

“Despite all the changes taking place around us, unfortunately Lebanon remains unchanged,” Kiwan added.

The draft law prepared by Charbel, in collaboration with civil society groups, has been presented to the government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati, but ministers have so far disagreed on major parts of the law.

Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt was opposed to proportional representation, arguing that such an electoral law would harm the interests of the country's Druze community.

Similar reservations are also made by other sects.

Lebanon's Greek Orthodox community's newly established Orthodox Gathering has called for having an electoral law that would allow “every sect to vote for its MPs.”

Despite criticism against members of the gathering for advocating “sectarianism,” the gathering's demands follow years of claims by Christian leaders that their sects' MPs were being voted for by Muslims, therefore implying that those MPs do not represent their community.

Meanwhile, advocates of proportional representation say that the greater the district becomes, the better is the participation of Lebanese.

“We have worked hard to reach a law that ensures the best representation as possible ... making districts smaller would weaken the representation across the country,” Rabih Kays, program director at the Lebanese Foundation for Permanent Civil Peace told The Daily Star.

Another controversial issue that has challenged healthy political representation is the participation of women in political decision-making. While some activists believe there is no need for a law to reinstate women's rights and representation in the Parliament, many participants at the UNESCO gathering challenge this.

Many activists say attempts to increase participation without a legal quota for women have failed. According to some international estimates, some 46 countries have adopted a quota system to increase women's participation in Parliament.

Dozens of other countries have made political parties nominate male and female candidates on an equal basis.

Former Justice Minister Bahij Tabbara said a proportional representation system would facilitate the introduction of a quota for women's participation. “The day we adopt an electoral law based on the proportional representation system with closed lists, we will be able to have quota for women,” said Tabbara, adding that women should participate in political decision-making.