Ri Insights

The Lebanese Game of Musical Chairs

paul gadalla

by Paul Gadalla

Rai Insights Contributor


The fight over the next election law reveals how corrupt Lebanon’s political class has become. After the election of Michel Aoun as president, who is committed to having parliament elections in June and refuses anymore delays, the battle over a new election law has greatly intensified with political parties digging in their heals for a law guaranteeing their seats in parliament.


Lebanon is now once again in another political deadlock as its leaders lock horns over what type of election law should be passed ahead of this year’s parliamentary elections.  Lebanon’s electoral system is Byzantine in nature and not the easiest to comprehend if one isn’t accustomed to the country’s confessional system of governance.  It is also riddled with flaws that have only heavily entrenched party politics, corruption, and political feudalism.


Already Lebanese leaders are treating the electoral process as a game of musical chairs, with parties bemoaning any comprehensive plan might decrease their seats in parliament. Walid Jumblatt, leader of Lebanon’s Druze Muslim minority has called for a mere modification of the previous election law from 2009 (which was based on a a law from 1960) as this preserves the Druze sect’s representation.  Meanwhile the main Shiite parties – Amal Movement and Hezbollah- have called for full on proportional representation as this bolsters Shiite votes. President Aoun’s son in law, who happens to be minister of foreign affairs and head of the president’s former political party, has proposed 64 MPs be elected by proportional representation and the other 64 voted only by people of the same sect in a winner takes all system .


All this rhetoric is extremely troubling. Although all parties remain constantly say they are committed to democracy, their statements show their true intentions: preserving their slices of the pie. It’s ironic when all parties are dedicated to transparent elections but their statements show concerns of how many seats they will get and making sure only people from their sect vote for MPs of the same sect.  This begs the question of: What’s the point of elections if it will merely bring back the same parties and figures?


Lebanon’s electoral process is mired in sectarianism and political feudalism and is Byzantine in nature. Lebanese citizens vote in electoral districts that change nearly every election. Within each district major political parties and families form a slate of candidates who represent the sectarian makeup of the district in a winner-takes-all system. Political parties will often form alliances in hopes of creating one major list that would be hard to contest. An excellent example of this is the Amal Movement and Hezbollah forming joint lists in Shiite districts. Combined they field the majority of the Shiite vote, stifling any hopes for independent candidates to win in Shiite-majority districts.


Districts have often been gerrymandered in order to create certain political leaning governments. Camille Chamoun created extremely small electoral districts which allowed his Christian base to vote out pro-Arab Muslim MPs. During the 1990’s under the Syrian occupation, which most Christian politicians rejected, electoral districts were enlarged which diluted Christian votes.  In the Lebanese confessional mind set this meant Muslim voters were voting in Christian MPs. This was partially reversed in the 2009 elections where electoral districts were based on a 1960 election law, which was a demand of now President Michel Aoun. Later on Christian politicians still bemoaned that even the 1960 election law was good enough to bring about true representation of Christian voters, especially for Christians registered in Muslim majority districts.


There are rays of hope, however. Former Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora commissioned famous scholar and ex-minister Fouad Boutros to create a new electoral law.  His commission recommended a mix of large districts in Muslim majority areas with proportional representation and small districts with winner takes all in Christian majority areas. Til this day the law has remained shelved but it does prove that there are capable ways of creating  a more just election law.  In a major victory for civil society groups, Jad Tabet, a secular independent candidate, defeated Paul Najm, who was backed by the major political parties in the election for the head of the Syndicate of Engineers. This is a major defeat for the Lebanese political establishment as syndicate and union elections are highly politicized and it is extremely rare for an independent candidate,  let alone one backed by civil society groups, to win something major.  Reformists and civil society groups must continue to pile pressure on the government to hold parliamentary elections on time and under a fair election law that allows for true democratic representation and not merely a game of musical chairs between political elites.

*Paul Gadalla is a New York native communication specialist and aspiring political analyst based in Beirut, Lebanon

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