Lebanon’s current crisis is a reminder of the country’s enduring political polarization along political and confessional fault lines. It represents a struggle between two fundamentally different visions for the country that also involve foreign powers, in which local leaders exercise little influence over final decision-making. Luckily, there is a chance to reverse this. Lebanon’s fragile and rigid political system, based on an archaic model of consociational democracy, is vulnerable to cyclical crises and does not guarantee government stability or avoid periodic confrontation and political stalemate. Coupled with political and sectarian clientelism, the delicate balance of power-sharing in the system often leads to political deadlock, which usually requires outside mediation to undo. For the second time in 17 years Lebanon faces the risk of civil strife. If anything, the current political crisis has made it painfully clear that the post-Taif system is flawed, as was the 1943 National Pact before it. The current system has failed to guarantee stability and prosperity for its citizens. State institutions, hijacked long ago by confessional and clientelist interests, do not inspire confidence in citizens, nor do they contribute to shaping national identity. Lebanese elites might need to revisit Taif in the not-so-distant future and eventually negotiate a new social contract agreed upon by the various poles of power in society. However before pushing toward this fateful and historic step, a way out of the current morass is possible if serious negotiations over a new, fair and democratic electoral law begin immediately. There are many reasons why we think a new electoral law will offer a short- to medium-term solution out of the current impasse. A representative electoral law can resolve major questions pertaining to representation in Parliament. It ensures the conveyance of actual weights of political parties and communities and protects Parliament and government against claims that they do not properly represent the people. Throughout Lebanon’s history, the rise and fall of political elites was preceded, typically, by crisis, war or assassination. A new electoral law would allow for political blocs to be periodically reshuffled in a democratic and peaceful way, and could allow for the rise of new elites. How so? A new electoral law can allow for implementation of all the clauses of the frozen Taif accord and reinforce trust in its ability to cement democracy. It can also set a precedent for the implementation of specific Taif provisions such as the abolition of political confessionalism. An acceptable electoral law not only depends on fair electoral districting, but on introducing such reform measures as the regulation of campaign financing and advertising, and setting up an independent electoral commission. This would ensure that elected leaders are representative and hence accountable to their citizens. The current system gives rights to communities rather than to individuals, leading to over-representation of some individuals in society and under-representation of others. A new law would curtail this practice and reward individual achievement. Fortunately we do not have to look too far for a new electoral law. On August 8, 2005, the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora set up a national commission headed by former Foreign Minister Fouad Boutros to propose a new electoral law. The draft law was released at the end of May 2006 and included reforms guaranteeing more democracy and better representation. The commission introduced a mixed system of proportional and majoritarian representation based on coupling small and medium electoral districts, allowing for the protection of minorities while opening the door for newcomers. The national commission, including academics and civil society activists, was a break with past practices of political compromise over electoral laws engineered by Syrian intelligence officers. The Siniora government has set up a process that is worth protecting and nurturing as an important precedent for reform in Lebanon. It has created the possibility of rendering confessionalism and clientelism increasingly irrelevant, and democracy and equal opportunity more valued. The proposed law deserves serious scrutiny and discussion; its passing would open the door for forging a new social contract, without necessarily having to go through new crises. Negotiating and passing a new electoral law need not be tied to early elections or a reversal of the 2005 election results. Importantly, such negotiations would divert attention away from the streets, rekindle the national dialogue and, more crucially, allow political leaders to claim ownership of fateful decisions affecting Lebanon’s future and stability.
Oussama K. Safa is the general director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies. Khalil Gebara is the co-executive director of the Lebanese Transparency Association. They wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.