Cedars to the East: A Study of Modern Lebanon
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 marriage 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 elections 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).
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 civil war, one would assume that democracy in Lebanon is in the midst of its death throes, and in one sense this is correct; however, like all other aspects of Lebanese politics, 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, Israel, 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
Prescriptive Analysis: Untangling the Puzzle
During the two decades preceding the 1975 civil war, many Western scholars referred to Lebanon as the "most stable democracy" in the Arab world; however, the political system, at times, falls far short of being democratic.84 The Lebanese system represents a political structure that is trying to do too many things at once, and is suffering in the process. Governed by the confessionism, Lebanon is locked into a system of representation that perpetuates reinforcing cleavages of religion, rather than diffusing them. While many would argue that the current system is the only way for religious minorities to be guaranteed a voice in politics, it is worth noting here that, since 1943, political confessionism has been considered as a temporary arrangement that should be expunged as soon as possible, but it has continued to predominate.85 In Lebanon, transforming the provisional decisions into permanent ones has become a tradition, reaffirmed most recently with the Taif Agreement.86
There is currently talk in Lebanon of adopting a proportional representation system to replace the current “winner-take-all” confessionism for the 2013 elections. Many in the government are fighting the reform, claiming that Lebanon is not ready for such a change, and that the system is too delicate; but with a recent survey showing that 59 percent of Lebanese favor proportional representation over the current winner-takes-all system,87 and another showing 81.7% of Lebanese prefer that there be a separation between religious activities and economic and social life,88 the writing appears to be on the wall. A proportional system would allow for the creation of catch-all parties to enter and compete in the political system. These national parties, free from the limiting stigmas of confessionism, would create cross-cutting cleavages, providing more opportunities for members of various religious faiths to find common ground and express themselves politically; unlike many of the current religious parties. To assuage the fears of minority groups, a low quota would allow smaller parties of any type to win more seats in the legislature. The beauty here, lies in the fact that these smaller groups could then band together to form new coalitions or larger parties without worrying about appealing to the Maronite and Druze voter in the same district.
I recognize that changing an unstable democracy’s electoral system overnight is both impossible and highly irresponsible. Further research must be done on the subject, but from popular sentiment, it seems that this change is inevitable. There are however smaller, institutional changes that could be made immediately that will help ease Lebanon’s corruption woes. The first is institutionalizing a uniform, national ballot. Under the current system, parties use specially printed or doctored ballots to instruct voters whom to vote for.89 They also use these ballots as they count the votes to track who voted the way they wanted and who did not.90 Regulating voting with a uniform paper or electronic ballot will restore anonymity to the voting process and break a crucial link in the chain that allows parties to spy on voters.91
Finally, giving more power to the judiciary would certainly help clean up electoral politics. As it stands now, the foxes guard the henhouse, as the Constitutional Council can only investigate electoral fraud, but since parties’ manipulative practices are not explicitly illegal, the council is powerless to stop them.92 If however the council were more empowered, precedents could be set that would allow Lebanon to develop into a freer, more democratic society.
Solving the political problems faced by Lebanon is no easy task. With deep, internal conflicts that date far back and are still tied to a political system imposed by a colonial power, Lebanon’s democracy is delicate to say the least. Besieged constantly by foreign influences and powers, (France, Syria, Israel, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, just to name a few) Lebanon’s sovereignty has never been fully stable, preventing the country from developing and adopting a political system based around its preferences, not the preferences of others.
As the 2013 election draw near, we can only hope that the people will mobilize and elect a government that will work for the best interests of the country. Based on surveys explored in this paper, it seems there is the political will for change, and given the inspiration of this year’s Arab Spring, the people of Lebanon may very well succeed. As Syria retreats inward to deal with its own upheaval and the rest of the Arab World is preoccupied with the unprecedented political change that swept through the region, 2013 may be Lebanon’s first step toward regaining the stability and grandeur that today seems like a distant memory.
|Confession||Before Taif||After Taif|
Source: Krayem, Hassan. "AUB: The Lebanese Civil War and the Taif Agreement." Digital Documentation Center - AUB. Web. 17 Nov. 2011. .
Appendix C – 2009 Detailed Results
|Election Results for each Alliance||Total||% 14M||14 March||% 8M||8 March|
|Beirut 19||Beirut 1||5||52.1%||5||47.9%||0|
|Bekaa 23||Baalbek +Hermel||10||21.6%||0||78.4%||10|
|Rashaya +West Bekaa||6||53.3%||6||46.7%||0|
|Mount Lebanon 35||Jbeil||3||39.6%||0||60.4%||3|
|North Lebanon 28||Akkar||7||63.1%||7||36.9%||0|
|South Lebanon 23||Saida||2||63.9%||2||36.1%||0|
Source: Lebanese Interior Ministry – 2009 Election Results. http://www.elections.gov.lb/Parliamentary/Elections-Results/2009-Real-time-Results/نتايج-الانتخابات-لكافة-الاقضية.aspx
Appendix D – 2009 Least Squares Calculations
|Parties||Votes %||Seats||Seats %||%S - %V||(%S - %V)^2|
|Mar - 14||Future Movement||26|
|Mar - 8|
Source: Lebanese Interior Ministry – 2009 Election Results. http://www.elections.gov.lb/Parliamentary/Elections-Results/2009-Real-time-Results/نتايج-الانتخابات-لكافة-الاقضية.aspx
Appendix E – Volatility Calculations (All Parties From 1962 – Present)
Source: IPU Paraline Database – Lebanon http://www.ipu.org/parline-e/reports/2179_A.htm