“Elections are won by men and women chiefly because most people vote against somebody rather than for somebody.”
Franklin P. Adams
Do you feel that some other elections are even more exciting than American presidential elections which are due in less than five weeks?
I am talking about the elections in Lebanon, scheduled for the Spring of 2013. Even though they lack the basic democratic foundations on which any elections should be based -- and are, in fact, rigged even before a single vote is cast since one of the contesting parties is fully armed --, the Lebanese elections remain an experience that deserves a little bit of reflection.
First of all, Lebanon, small as it is, is considered the gauge of the political and security climate in the region and currently serves as the “truce line” between Israel and Iran. Its people are virtual hostages in a hijacked bus, as neither Israel respects the sovereignty of their country, nor Iran deals with Lebanon as a proper independent state; a fact the Lebanese need to understand soon.
Lebanon is all like one of the squares on a chessboard… on which a lethal regional game is played and where the basic rules are camouflage and maneuvers.
While the Lebanese have been going through the voting experience for a while now, they have no idea what real democracy means. Indeed, there are major differences between voting as a sheer procedure and as a democratic process that needs to meet certain conditions like political awareness, accountability, responsibility and transparency with oneself and with others.
Lebanese papers and TV shows are flooded by a barrage of statements and debates that can be translated into anything but a real attempt at reaching true democracy and proper political representation. The only positive thing is that some parties have been talking explicitly and realistically about the sectarian allocation of votes. This gave rise to the proposal called “the Orthodox Meeting’s Proposal” to break the taboo and publicly demand that each sect chooses its own members of parliament. It is not clear how far this initiative represents the Greek Orthodox community in Lebanon, but such honesty makes a promising start.
The vehement objection to this plan by the Shiite “duo” of Hezbollah and Amal did not come as a surprise, for they have been bullying the Lebanese people for quite some time, thanks to their arms and money, including members of their own sect. The “duo” claim that pluralist democracy is not possible without proportional representation in enlarged electoral constituencies. For those who do not know the details, in which the devils resides as the saying goes, the Shiite “duo” insist on taking advantage of the proportional representation system to infiltrate other sects while, thanks to their arsenal, making sure that not one single Shiite vote would dare challenge the “duo’s” hegemony in the Shiite areas of influence. Consequently, Hezbollah and Amal are assured of a parliamentary majority even before voters go to the polls.
Furthermore, the Shiite “duo” have been accusing their opponents of “sectarianism”. It is, however, controlling a sizable proportion of Christian seats through its own sectarian alliance with the rightist Armenian party Dashnag, a proponent of the Iranian and Syrian regimes with which it shares a determination to curb Turkey’s influence in the region. There is no need, of course, to point out the historical animosity between Turks and Armenians.
On the other hand, the Christian front, whose electoral leverage does not exceed 30-38% according to reliable statistics, is divided into two camps. The first camp is comprised of supporters of the March 14 bloc, the main opponent of the Tehran-Damascus axis, and which is supported by the majority of Sunni Muslims and Druze. The other camp is comprised of supporters of the March 8 bloc, the ally of the Tehran-Damascus axis, and which is supported by the majority of Shiite Muslims and Armenians.
The March 14 Christians prefer a system of single -- seat constituency or a small constituency containing three seats at most. They claim that such choices help “liberate” Christian votes from Muslim influence, be it Sunni, Shiite or Druze. While MP Michel Aoun, Hezbollah’s Christian agent, supports the proportional representation formula in the hope that Shiite and Armenian votes will grant him once more an inflated parliamentary bloc.
The Shiite “duo” object to the March 14 version citing two excuses: First, that it increases sectarian tension and gives extremist Christians a better chance at the expense of the moderate ones who believe in peaceful coexistence with Muslims. Second, that it violates the terms of the Taif Agreement which stipulates that the governorate boundaries determine the limits of each constituency.
Those two excuses are technically valid. It is true that the small constituency system encourages extremist votes and violates the Taif Agreement, but the Shiite “duo” are overlooking two other important facts: First, is that the “duo” is the biggest and strongest sectarian coalition in Lebanon, and therefore is not in a position to preach religious tolerance and peaceful coexistence. Second, is that the Taif Agreement strictly prohibited any violation of the principles of coexistence; and this means that no group has the right to coerce other groups into taking particular decision just because it possesses arms or enjoys regional support.
The real problem with small constituencies is that they reflect the demographic discrepancy in a flagrant manner. If we consider that Christians make up one third of Lebanon’s population and Muslims two thirds, and if we assume that parliamentary seats are equally divided, this will mean that the votes a Muslim candidate needs to get to enter the parliament have to be double the ones his Christian counterpart should get. This might serve the interests of extremist Muslim groups who might later call for changing the representation system at the expense of Christians citing inequality. One pro-Syrian Lebanese politician, in fact, once argued that the 50-50 formula is not going to work all the time. “Will parliamentary seats continue be equally distributed even if when the percentage of Muslims reaches 80% and Christians 20%?” he wondered.
The solution to this problem, already proposed by the Taif Agreement, is the establishment of a Senate that equates between all sects and whereby each sect elects its senators. On the other hand, the house of representatives would remain absolutely non-sectarian. This, in addition to the administrative decentralization system, promises a future that is devoid of injustice and fear; one in which civil society parties can play a major role in addressing the daily needs of average citizens and enhance the principles of citizenship.
This is the only solution. Other peddled solutions either offer temporary relief or are based on sectarian manipulation. In other words, they will only postpone an inevitable explosion.
The writer is a columnist at Asharq al-Awsat where this article was first published on Oct. 1, 2012