BEIRUT: Since the general elections in Lebanon last June, which kept the Western and Saudi-backed March 14th alliance in power and ushered Saad Hariri to the premiership, there has been an air of appeasement among the country’s political leaders. This mood among politicians should be seen as a window of opportunity.
Parliamentary and electoral developments in the last few years have highlighted like never before the extent to which political expression in Lebanon hinges on sectarian representation. Nor is this an incidental state of affairs, but a systemic one: in the Shia community power rests predominantly in the hands of the Hezbollah-Amal duet; the Hariri family and its Future Movement control the Sunni community; Walid Jumblatt and his Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) still head the Druze community; and the Christian community is under the sway of either Samir Geagea s Lebanese Forces party (of the March 14th alliance) or Michel Aoun s Free Patriotic Movement (of the Hezbollah-led March 8th alliance).
While this polarization has resulted in an increased tendency toward consensual politics between political leaders, it has inevitably also entrenched sectarian politics further, both psychologically and practically. This is despite the fact that the Taif Agreement, which put an end to the 15-year Lebanese civil war in 1990 and is today part of the Lebanese Constitution, calls for an end to “community or sectarian rule.
The Constitution (Article 95, paragraph 2) stipulates an interim period during which the sectarian groups are to be represented in a just and equitable fashion in the formation of the Cabinet . Thus, any government must represent the four major sectarian groups, i.e. Shia, Sunni, Druze and Christian, even if they do not share the same political agenda.
As a consequence, all political decisions are subject to negotiation or even bargaining, and are governed by compromise. The problem is that the absence of a government’s ability to lead, in a sense, limits the possibility of reform and confines any government, at best, to crisis management.
The elites and leaders of the various communities must realize that absent far-reaching reform the Lebanese state will remain dysfunctional. These community leaders should come together around a common agenda and launch a media campaign in which they directly engage political leaders on the imperative of strengthening the state’s political institutions, raising awareness in the public of the cost of continuing down the path of systemic paralysis.
A good place to start is with in-depth reform of the public sector and judiciary, banning cronyism and pie-sharing amongst the political leadership on behalf of their respective communities. The second step must be a genuine overhaul of electoral law to institute a proportional voting system: first, there would be a uninominal round of voting (one member per district) based on 128 districts, which is the current number of members of parliament; next, a determining round would take place in which the country would be divided into medium-sized constituencies – proportionally comprised of six to eight seats, with the option to arrange these candidates in order of preference.
The benefits of such a law would be two-fold: first, Lebanese citizens would vote on a political rather than community basis and, second, this would reduce or remove the strangle-hold of a religious majority over any given constituency. In fact, the first-round vote would place the ball squarely in the voters camp, and would allow them to vote for their preferred candidates, while the proportional system in the run-off vote would make room for non-communitarian political alliances in medium-sized constituencies.
The larger the constituency, the greater the odds that citizens from different communities would interact and find common purpose. Any candidate that needs to win over a wide diversity of voters within his/her constituency must necessarily give up communitarian and sectarian arguments and move on to a broader national discourse.
In this way the current conciliatory climate will prevail, laying down the foundations of an enduring democratic republic.
Fadia Kiwan is Head of the Institute of Political Science at St. Joseph University in Beirut. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).