The il­lu­sion of change

Le­banon’s new elec­toral law is not so pro­por­tional

Executive Magazine - - Economics & Policy - By Zeina Am­mar

Le­banon is set to elect 128 Mem­bers of Par­lia­ment (MPs) on May 6, based on a long-awaited

pro­por­tional system. Pro­por­tion­al­ity, in the­ory, en­sures bet­ter rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the pop­u­la­tion by al­lo­cat­ing for each list a num­ber of seats that is pro­por­tional to the num­ber of votes it re­ceived. This is a clear step up from the ma­jori­tar­ian rule whereby all seats within an elec­toral dis­trict are al­lo­cated to the list with a sim­ple ma­jor­ity of votes, which can leave more than half of vot­ers un­rep­re­sented. How­ever, the picture is not as straight­for­ward in Le­banon, where the rep­re­sen­ta­tive­ness is called into ques­tion by sev­eral fac­tors in­her­ent to the law it­self.


Elim­i­na­tion thresh­olds are not un­com­mon in elec­tions around the world. Un­like here, how­ever, they are usu­ally set at a low and fixed per­cent­age. The Le­banese law in­tro­duces a dis­trict-spe­cific thresh­old (the to­tal num­ber of valid votes in a dis­trict di­vided by the num­ber of seats in the same dis­trict) that de­ter­mines whether lists qual­ify in the elec­toral count. Any list with a num­ber of votes lower than the thresh­old is elim­i­nated from the race and the votes it re­ceived are dis­carded. The al­lo­ca­tion of seats then hap­pens based on a sec­ond cal­cu­la­tion sim­i­lar to the first thresh­old but with a new to­tal num­ber of votes af­ter sub­tract­ing the votes of the elim­i­nated list(s). Di­vid­ing by a smaller to­tal raises the over­all pro­por­tion of votes for the lists that were not elim­i­nated. This two-step cal­cu­la­tion is not a tech­ni­cal ne­ces­sity. It is de­signed to raise the re­quired num- ber of votes nec­es­sary to se­cure one seat on the one hand, and in­flate the pro­por­tion al­lo­cated to the qual­i­fy­ing lists on the other.


One of the hailed changes brought about by the new law is the en­larg­ing of the elec­toral dis­tricts by re­duc­ing their to­tal num­ber from 26 to 15. Gen­er­ally speak­ing, larger dis­tricts equal fairer rep­re­sen­ta­tion and fewer dis­en­fran­chised vot­ers and this in­deed is a step for­ward. Yet the new law of­fers a pe­cu­liar­ity in this re­gard: some of the 15 large dis­tricts are di­vided into two, three, or four smaller dis­tricts and vot­ers can only cast a pref­er­en­tial vote for a can­di­date run­ning in their sub-dis­trict. This greatly lim­its voter choice and their abil­ity to in­flu­ence the rank­ing of can­di­dates within their cho­sen list.


True to the terms of the Taif Ac­cord, the new elec­toral law al­lo­cates a set num­ber of seats per re­li­gious sect. This is meant to en­sure fair rep­re­sen­ta­tion of all 18 re­li­gious com­mu­ni­ties in the coun­try. How­ever, the num­ber of seats al­lo­cated per sect does not cor­re­spond to the cur­rent de­mog­ra­phy. Setting aside this flawed premise of fair sec­tar­ian rep­re­sen­ta­tion, the sec­tar­ian vari­able greatly re­duces rep­re­sen­ta­tive­ness of vot­ers’ will. It ef­fec­tively means that the can­di­dates who make it to Par­lia­ment are not the can­di­dates who re­ceived the most votes within a given dis­trict but the can­di­dates who re­ceived the most votes within their sect, within their dis­trict.


While pref­er­en­tial votes are usu­ally used to de­ter­mine the or­der of can­di­dates within a list, this law uses them to de­ter­mine the or­der of the can­di­dates across all the win­ning lists. In or­der to de­ter­mine which can­di­dates will fill the seats se­cured by each list, the can­di­dates of all the win­ning lists are ranked in one com­bined list ac­cord­ing to their over­all per­cent­age of pref­er­en­tial votes by sub- dis­trict. This gives pri­or­ity to ma­jor par­ties in fill­ing the al­lo­cated seats and to pref­er­en­tial vote- get­ters in dis­tricts or sub-dis­tricts with lower over­all vote to­tals. The fairer al­ter­na­tive would be to rank can­di­dates based on pref­er­en­tial votes within each list, or­der the lists from right to left based on pop­u­lar­ity, and pro­ceed in fill­ing the seats by go­ing through the lists hor­i­zon­tally, tak­ing one can­di­date per list ev­ery time.

Cou­pled with the sec­tar­ian vari­able, this trans­lates into ma­jor par­ties se­cur­ing the seats of the ma­jor sects of each dis­trict, leav­ing only mi­nor­ity seats to be po­ten­tially taken up by mi­nor lists. This arrangement en­sures that there is no threat to the ma­jor zu’ama’s claim to par­lia­men­tary seats in their home dis­trict.

While the new law al­lows for a greater pos­si­bil­ity that mi­nor coali­tions will gain rep­re­sen­ta­tion, the shift in that di­rec­tion is mar­ginal. All in all, it would take years of po­lit­i­cal or­ga­niz­ing for any new play­ers to ef­fec­tively work around it and be rep­re­sented.

ZEINA AM­MAR holds a Mas­ter in Pub­lic Pol­icy (MPP) from the Univer­sity of Ox­ford.

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