Cedars to the East: A Study of Modern Lebanon

By Constantine J. Petallides
2011, Vol. 3 No. 12 | pg. 2/3 |

The Lebanese Political System

The alternating periods of and prosperity found throughout Lebanon’s history may corroborate the classic Clemenza Theorem, which states “This thing's gotta happen every five years or so; ten years; helps to get rid of the bad blood,”52 but they are not conducive to a well-run political system. In this section, I define and analyze the structures of the Lebanese political system; examine how the system affects measures like proportionality and coalition composition; and weight the system’s benefits and drawbacks, such as corruption, vote-buying, and lack of accountability.

The Confessional System

The term confessional-system has been used in this paper several times so far, but has not yet been sufficiently defined. Lebanon is divided into 26 constituencies that are then grouped into five regions: Beirut, Bekaa, Mount Lebanon, North Lebanon, and South Lebanon. (See Appendix A for the district map with religious breakdown.) Each district has a certain number of parliamentary seats determined by district population. Of these districts, Beirut is the largest and elects 19 deputies while Minié is the smallest and elects only one. What makes Lebanon’s system unique is that each district reserves seats for different religious groups, ensuring representation of all minorities. Taking Beirut as an example, of the 19 total seats, 9 are reserved for Muslims and 10 for Christians (further divisions are made among the groups ensuring that the proportion of seats allocated to Sunni, Druze, Shi’a, Greek Orthodox, Maronite candidates represents the districts demographic reality).53 This complex calculus is done throughout Lebanon’s districts, ensuring that the even 64-64 seat split between Christians and Muslims looks like this:

Lebanese Confessional System

Image Source: http://www.anigalla.net/70mm/post/Lebanon-Elections-and-Results-2009-Lebanon-Election-Results-Exit-Poll-Results.aspx

Before the Taif Agreement, this system was built to maintain a 6:5 majority for Christians (see appendix B for the totals before and after the Taif Agreement).

The Executive and Judicial Branches

The National Assembly elects the president for unlimited, nonconsecutive six-year terms, and, as agreed in the National Pact of 1943, he or she is to be a Maronite Christian. Post-Independence, the President held veto power, extensive control over the prime minister, and with the 6:5 Christian majority, he was, for all intents and purposes, the head of the government.54 Only after the Taif agreement, were the president’s powers curtailed and limits more explicitly defined. As dictated by the constitution, the president is the head of state, chair of the Supreme Defense Council, and commander in chief of the armed forces.55 The president still holds veto power and a few extended authorities in states of emergency, but the role of the Prime Minister as head of government has been more clearly established.

Lebanon's judicial system is a mixture of Ottoman law, Napoleonic code, canon law and civil law. The Lebanese court system consists of three levels: courts of first instance, courts of appeal, and the court of cassation. The ten-member Constitutional Council rules on the constitutionality of laws and electoral frauds. Five of its members are elected by the parliament and five are appointed by the executive.56 There also is a system of religious courts having jurisdiction over personal status matters within their own communities, with rules on matters such as and inheritance57 While the courts have made important rulings on social and religious issues such as age of consent, polygamy, and women’s rights, ruling regarding electoral laws and statues have been delayed, at times by the president wanting to buy time, and at times, by the Council itself.58

With a better understanding of the complex nature of the power-sharing executives and the split judiciary, one can see how alarmingly easy it can be for political disagreements in Lebanon to snowball into destabilizing conflicts.

Parties, Stats, and the Nitty-Gritty of Elections

True political power in Lebanon lies in the 128-seat unicameral legislature. These deputies, directly elected every four years, represent the political preferences and religious diversity of their districts. While as an ideal, this system sounds perfect given Lebanon’s unique circumstances and demographics; the realities of recent pain a different picture, and we are left to wonder whether a confessional system can every truly represent the people of Lebanon.

The 2009 election can be summed up as an electoral between the March 14th Alliance, led by Saad Hariri’s Future Movement Party, and the March 8th Alliance, led by Hezbollah and Armal. Unfortunately, in spite of tireless searching, party-specific vote data could not be found either through the Interior Ministry’s archives or from open source data online. This may be due to government inefficiency, lack of transparency, and Lebanon’s lack of uniform ballots, which I will discuss in a later section. However, seat allocations and coalition percentages were more readily available. Looking at the results, one is immediately struck by the fact that the March 14th Alliance received only an average of 44.5% of the national vote, but received 71 seats; while the March 8th Alliance received 55.5%, but only 57 seats in the legislature.5960 Coincidentally, this result is virtually the same as the result from the election in 2005.61 What is significant about these elections becomes evident after completing the Least Squares calculation of proportionality. (Sere Appendix D) What we are left with is a roughly 11% deviation from proportionality; nearly twice our global baseline of 6.65%.62 Under normal circumstances, the 11% figure would not raise any red flags, but when we consider it in the context of Lebanon, a country with a political system that is falling over itself to ensure proportional representation of different groups, this figure becomes more interesting. Why, despite their best efforts, are the Lebanese still so far from the proportionality they strive to achieve? The answer lies within the confessional system itself.

To illustrate this point, take the district of Baabda as an example. The six seats in this district are split with three seats reserved for Maronites, two for Shias, and the last seat for Druze candidates.63 In this system, the top three Maronite candidates will be elected to the legislature, but the candidate with the fourth-highest vote total receives nothing, even if he/she received more votes than the top Shia or Druze candidates. These votes that are lost and sent into the electoral void decrease the proportionality of the election results and directly undermine voter preferences. With 26 districts electing 128 representatives, Lebanon’s average district magnitude is 4.92 (M = 128/26), which is well below Lijphart’s magical M=7 threshold where a legislature truly represents a microcosm of society.64 With the confessional system, a Maronite voter in Baabda sees the district magnitude cut effectively in half from its intended six seats down to only three. While voters are encouraged and expected to vote for candidates for each seat, regardless of their personal religious identity, this rarely works as originally intended. Religious prejudice may result in voters ignoring candidates of other faiths; party deals and strategies may call for members to vote for certain coalition partners running for other seats, or conversely they may instruct members to ignore a seat entirely.65 This is made possible by the fact that there are no official ballots in parliamentary elections. Voters may either write the names of the candidates they wish to vote for on a plain piece of paper, or they may use party-issued ballots that are almost completely unregulated by the central government.66 These shortcomings of the confessional policies reduce the proportionality and effectiveness of a delicate system and make it susceptible to corruption and manipulation by parties and power players.

Volatility: Tempest in a Teapot, or Quiet Serpent Waiting to Strike?

Given the challenging demographic realities and fractured political system in Lebanon, coalitions and political alliances have been the only way for parties to remain in power. As such, with these ever shifting alliances and marriages of political convenience, Lebanon is prone to a high level of volatility from cycle to cycle. (See Appendix E for volatility measurements).

Volatitlity Over Time

Source: Author Generated

Running the volatility calculations yields some alarming results for Lebanon. With an overall, average volatility of 44.82%, Lebanon has quintupled the global baseline of 8.6%.67 With this average and spikes of +80% in the aftermath of the , one would assume that in Lebanon is in the midst of its death throes, and in one sense this is correct; however, like all other aspects of Lebanese , this too requires further investigation. Looking closely at the Appendix E table, it becomes apparent that this electoral volatility is not due to massive swings in voter preference, but due to changes within the parties themselves. The Taif Agreement ended the destructive Lebanese Civil War and did away with the old 6:5 Christian majority, replacing it with equal representation for Christians and Muslims; but with beneficial changes, Taif also unshackled the forces of political gamesmanship. Where before the status quo was predictable and parties were merely competing for power within the Muslim minority, after the 64-64 split, suddenly the majority was available to whichever party or coalition was strong enough to take it.68 With that in mind, parties seized the opportunity 1992 and 1996 to form new coalitions and blocs that had never previously existed. Volatility was fueled not by voters deciding they no longer liked a party, but by parties deciding they no longer liked themselves. Parties became preoccupied with their structure, their allies, and how these factors affected their chances of capturing that all-important 65th vote and joining the government. Looking again at the table, a massive volatility spike in 2005 coincides with the formations of the March 8th and March 14th Alliances. These grand-coalitions unified by ideology, circumstance, and in some cases convenience have dominated Lebanese politics for the last six years. Since their formation in 2005, volatility has steadily decreased, signaling that the alliances are stable. With the volatility rating a mere 4.69% during the 2011 Hezbollah political coup, I would argue that Lebanon has begun moving from a multi-party system to a two-coalition system. As predicted by Maurice Duverger, the stronger the alliances become, the more we will see the fusion of small parties under the leadership of either the Future Movement or Hezbollah, respectively, and the elimination of weaker parties by voters.69

These powerful alliance structures coupled with the lack of reliable party-specific data make it very difficult to calculate the effective of number parties. While an empirical measure of the strength of Lebanon’s parties would be ideal, qualitative analysis of the volatility table provides some clear insights into coalition structures and the power of individual parties. Looking at the 2011 shift in power, we see the March 14th Alliance lost its majority when Hezbollah convinced the Progressive Socialist Party to leave the Alliance and join the March 8th Alliance government as “pro-government independents.”70 The transfer of those eleven seats reduced the March 14th Alliance from 71 votes to only 60 and allowed the March 8th Alliance to take over with 68 in total. From this point of view, the Progressive Socialist Party was a major power player; while the March 14th Alliance was not a minimal winning coalition, this defection was still enough to cost them the majority. This brings up a deeper question about Lebanese coalitions, namely, how would one form a minimally connected winning coalition? To this there is no easy answer. Given the religious divisions maintained by the confessional system, parties are forced to play political games on two different levels when forming coalitions. A party like the Progressive Socialists does not have a stated religious agenda, as it is more concerned with economic and welfare policies, so on that metric, the socialists would be neutral. A party like Hezbollah, with its clear ideological and theological stance, falls on the Islamist side of the spectrum, but their social policies have room for experimentation. In this case, a party that would sit socially on the left is in high demand by both coalitions due to its central, swing-vote status on the religious metric. Given the right incentives, the socialists could be persuaded to change their allegiances in exchange for a governmental post that would allow them to pursue their policy goals, so long as the main party’s religious agenda does not interfere.

Vote-Buying & The Party Apparatus: It’s Just The Way Things Are Done

To conclude this section I will delve into the thriving black market that surrounds vote-buying in Lebanon. Dominant parties seek to purchase votes by co-opting poor, uneducated voters in key districts. Like any other economic transaction, vote-buying is governed by the laws of supply and demand: the more contested the election is looking, the more parties are willing to pay for votes.71 Payment comes in many forms; sometimes food, sometimes cash, sometimes support or services such as giving a voter’s son a job.72 This clientalism is deep-rooted and very sophisticated. Party officials keep their end of the bargain, and have invested heavily in monitoring systems to ensure that the voters do too. Using party-endorsed, suggested ballots, parties affect the objectivity of the vote by only putting the names of candidates they want elected (either from the same party or coalition partners). Party leaders also send out observers who infiltrate people’s social networks and keep records of what deals they have made and with whom. When it comes time to count the votes, it is done meticulously at polling stations in very small numbers.73 While this cuts down on the level of human error during vote analysis, it also gives party observers time to track who voted for whom and whether any deals have been breached.74 While the ballot remains secret, given the small sample size at any polling station and their familiarity with the locals, party observers are able to, with a reasonable degree of certainty, ascertain how an entire family voted through this practice.75

While freer than many other Arab states,76 Lebanon scored a 2.5 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index.77 Given the open system of vote-buying and the fact that 81.2% of survey respondents opposed the statement that “The Government works to create good conditions for citizens and improve their lives through service”,78 not to mention the 80.1% believe that the government does not take the views of citizens seriously,79 this score should not be surprising. To make the point more concrete, in a recent survey, 55% of respondents admitted that “personal services” swayed them to vote for one party over another.80The parties in Lebanon are political machines, seeking to outwit their opponents and hold onto control. Many are also beholding to and influenced by foreign actors; Saudi Arabia supports Saad Hariri and Iran supports Hezbollah, just to name a few.81 Party coffers are weighted down every election cycle by foreign funds pouring in from Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, , and recently, Druze leaders have been appealing to wealthy minorities in Bahrain and the UAE.82 With all this foreign influence and political subterfuge, one must question whose interests the deputies truly represent when they are finally sworn in. Regardless, as it stands, the political system is a well-oiled machine propped up by too much wealth and too many foreign interests. It seems that even when the faces change from election to election, the policies remain the same.83