After a long and heated debate the Lebanese parliament voted in favour of implementing a new election law on the 17th of June, extending the parliament’s term by another 11 months. A political crisis was hereby averted as the parliament’s term was due to expire on 20 June. Many hope that under the new law Lebanon will move away from its deep sectarian divisions.
Postponement of elections
Elections were held for the last time in 2009 and have since been postponed twice, because of alleged instability stemming from the war in neighbouring Syria and later the parliament’s inability to elect a new president. The vacancy for president was finally filled in October 2016 by Michael Aoun, after more than two years of deadlock. Lebanese activists accused politicians of using the previous mentioned issues as an excuse to avoid elections, the EU also condemned the postponements calling them unconstitutional. When elections were postponed for a second time on 5 November 2014 Angelina Eichhorst, head of the EU delegation in Lebanon, said on Twitter that it was "a sad day in Lebanon's constitutional history.”
Additionally the parliament had been bickering for years about a new voting law; reaching an agreement was very difficult due to sectarian divisions in the parliament and influence of Iran and Saudi Arabia, which back different groups in the country. Parties agreed on the need to reform the election law, but disagreed about which system should replace it. When the parliament subsequently tried to extend its term past April President Michael Aoun suspended parliamentary activities in order to get the MPs to agree on the reforms, resulting in the new election law on the 17th of June.
The old and new election law
Elections in Lebanon were based on the “1960 law”, a voting system where parties gained votes based on their religious sect. In this system eighteen different confessional groups share power, with parliamentary seats being reserved for different groups. Each sect was granted a certain number of seats based on a quota, this quota was however seen as unfair and unrepresentative due to the country’s demographic shift.
The new law will extend the parliament’s term for another year until the 20th of May, elections are to take place on the 6th of May 2018. It will create a proportional representation system for parliament, divide Lebanon into 15 electoral districts and replace the winner-takes-all system.
The Maronite Christians in Lebanon’s parliament were especially unhappy with the previous electoral law. Under the terms of the Taif agreement of 1989, the number of seats reserved for Maronite Christians was reduced and the powers of the president, always a Christian, were restricted. Additionally half of the Christian legislators in multiple districts were chosen by non-Christians. Aoun’s party, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), thus wanted constituencies to be redrawn so that more of the Christian seats would be decided exclusively by Christian voters.
A small group of protesters, assembling after the vote, said the new proportional system won’t be effective and were disappointed it lacked a quota for women MP’s. It also lacks an independent electoral commission and it doesn’t included limits on campaign spending. Some also point to the fact that the number of seats allocated in most of the voting districts is too low for the proportional system to be effective and that this system still consists of majoritarian elements. Additionally small parties and civil society groups risk being excluded from seriously competing in small districts as the threshold could become very high there.
Prime Minister Saad Hariri however referred to the agreement as a historic achievement, saying, "This is the first time the Lebanese sit together and agree on legislation in a positive atmosphere". President Aoun hailed the draft law as a "great achievement", adding that the current plurality vote system does not provide for just representation. Druze leader and head of the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP), Walid Junblatt, criticised the proportional representation law as being too “complicated”, but Druze MPs promised not to block its passing in parliament. The PSP previously proposed to use a hybrid electoral law to govern Lebanon’s upcoming parliamentary elections.