Countdown Lebanon

Will the Byzantine voting system confound the doomsayers about the election in Lebanon?

by Chris Ritchie

Parliamentary elections in Lebanon are interesting because, as the only sovereign Arab state that isn’t beholden to an all-powerful monarch or president-for-life, the results shed some real light on public opinion in an Arab society.

And this week-end’s elections are being held against a backdrop of a near-boiling-point contest for influence over opinion on the ‘Arab Street,’ a competition that pits the Sunni Muslim governments of the Arab League against the non-Arab and Shiia Muslim Iranian revolutionary theocracy in Persia [Iran.]

But while many in the region seem determined to interpret the results as a clear-cut victory for one side or the other, Lebanon’s devious voting system could yet frustrate all such attempts.

The IMF recently forecast Lebanon’s economy will grow by about three per cent this year, following a China-beating expansion of perhaps nine per cent in 2008.

The banking, tourism and property sectors are booming. Direct inward investment flows are holding up and the out-performance of this resource-poor country, which is about half the size of New Caledonia, has tested the abilities of even the most imaginative of the quote-a-bank-economist brigade.

It is as if the country’s business establishment just knows that there’ll be no significant domestic political change after Sunday June 7th voting to elect the country’s eighteenth Parliament since 1927.

Its a remarkably sanguine attitude – the case for which I’ll try to explain in a moment – but not before outlining an alternative, apocalyptic view which is being promoted by the largest party in the country’s outgoing coalition government and also by that party’s allies outside of the country, most especially those in the Arab world.

The end-of-the-world view

For months now, Lebanon’s election campaign has been obsessively covered by major Arab media outlets where it is typically framed as a proxy war in a high-stakes Great Game, the latest installment of that epic 30-year contest for influence that pits Persia against the kings and presidents-for-life that constitute the leadership of the Arab states.

It is all about the story.

And in the Arab World, where the concept of contested elections can be hard to fathom, the story is that the polyglot melting pot that is the Lebanon is a critical barometer for trends in public opinion across the region and, this being so, Lebanon in 2009 is a red line where Iran cannot be allowed to make any further in-roads.

Far too much of an in-road was permitted to Iran in 2006 when Iranian-backed Lebanese Shiia fighters actually put up a spirited fight in a brief war with the all-powerful Israeli army – in complete contrast to the pitiable performance of every Sunni Arab army over the past 60 years.

Lebanon’s Shiia terrorists, as they are seen everywhere from Morocco to Kuwait, cannot be allowed to cap their propaganda achievements in that 2006 conflict with success at the ballot box in 2009. In fact, they must be seen to emerge from the elections weaker than they were going into them.

The composition of the 14-party, 30-member Cabinet going into Sunday’s election includes sixteen ministerial warrants for M.P.s from the “pro-Arab, pro-West” March 14 coalition, eleven ministers from the “pro-Iran, pro-Syria” March 8 coalition and three ministers appointed directly by the Maronite Catholic President, who is not fully in either camp.

Two key promises have issued during this election campaign from the leading party of theMarch 14 coalition, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora’s Tayyar al-Mustaqbal or Future Movement:

The first Future Movement promise is that, in the event that March 14 retains a majority of seats in the newly-elected Parliament, then the Future Movement will set unacceptable conditions for membership of the Cabinet which would lead to a walk-out by the March 8 bloc, so highlighting to the entire Arab world that Iran’s Shiite allies are losing support in Lebanon and are in political decline.

This is a very signficant manifesto commitment in a country where traditionally all major sects, and their parties, are represented at the Cabinet table – the exceptions being those periods when the country descends into civil war.

The promise to remove March 8 bloc M.P.s from Cabinet is, in a Lebanese context, like proposing to disenfranchise significant portions of public opinion within the Shiia, Maronite, Greek Orthodox, Armenian, Greek Catholic and Alawite communities – arguably a majority of the national population, although no one knows for sure, since no census has been held since 1932.

The second, equally explosive Future Movement electoral promise is that, in the event that the March 8 bloc should unexpectedly win a majority of seats in the new Parliament, then the Future Movement and its March 14 allies will refuse to join the Cabinet.

That is meant to be understood by voters to mean that should March 8 get a majority of seats then the Arab World’s allies in the West might like to consider an economic and diplomatic boycott of the country – or worse.

Factors supporting the end-of-the-world view

Given the high stakes, it doesn’t take much to imagine the elections as a precursor to implosion and war. The rhetoric during the campaign has certainly been highly charged with each side accusing the other of being an agent of foreign powers.

The PM’s Future Movement‘s publicity appeals to subterranean ( particularlly Sunni ) anxieties over real and imagined non-Sunni intrigue.

In the 2005 elections, the Future Movement‘s candidates won 36 seats and its cast iron hold on the 27 seats that are reserved in the Parliament for Sunnis will be confirmed in this year’s election, giving the party the box seat inside the March 14 coalition.*

The characterisation of the election as a plebiscite on a regional power struggle is also reinforced by the fact that an opposing bloc of 28 seats was, in 2005, won by two overwhelmingly Shiia parties – Amal [led by the Parliamentary Speaker] and Hizbullah or Party of God [which is defined by the United States as a terrorist entity and deemed by most Arab governments as worse than terrorist].

Traditional leading families of the Shiia community, the conservative al-Assad and al-Husseini clans which once thoroughly dominated Shiia politics, lost their influence in the 1960s-1980s when southern Lebanon was a battleground between Israeli and Palestinian forces. The impoverished Shiia Lebanese, abandoned to their fate by a weak central government, were politically radicalised in the process.

Back to the sanguine view

Given the potentially high stakes in any electoral outcome, it does seem amiss for Lebanon to be in the middle of an investment, building and tourism boom characterized by high business confidence levels and an IMF forecast that the local growth rate will be double the average across the developing world this year.

So what does the business community base its confidence on?

Money, it seems. Plus the weird voting system being used to determine which of the 587 candidates will win the 125 seats up for grabs in the 128-seat single-chamber parliament.

The sanguine narrative notes that Arab governments always bark loudly, but holds that the barking can be discounted for those governments will act to protect their substantial investments in Lebanon once the heat of the campaign is over, and the votes have been cast and counted.

Regardless of the result they’ll take a deep breath and let the Lebanese parties do what they almost always do. Which is to put together a broad-based coalition government.

And the Arab governments will also look to America for leadership about the timing of an anticipated future showdown with Iran.

While very few Arab commentators doubt that America will eventually give the greenlight to Israel to attack Iran, Lebanese business optimism assumes that Lebanon won’t be the battleground for that war this year.

That is because America’s economy – and the Federal Government’s balance sheet – are in no position to risk another Middle Eastern flashpoint. Not at a time in history when the world is in danger of drowning in US Treasury bonds to fund, in part, wars in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq that will become much more complex once Iran and its allies are formally in war with the West.

The second pillar upon which Lebanese business optimism rests is the hybrid electoral system that has evolved in the country over the past 80 years.

Lebanon’s voting system is a First Past The Post multi-member electorate electoral system, where the main communities are guaranteed set quotas of seats. Citizens aged 21 years and over cast their secret ballots in the electorates in which their births were registered, regardless of the religious affiliation of the candidates in that electorate.

Lebanon’s constitution recognises 18 confessional sects (Orthodox Sunnis, Ismali Shiias, Immami Shiias and offshoots Druze and Alawi; Among Christians, the Catholic branches including Maronite, Greek [Melkite], Armenian, Chaldean, Syrian [Syriac] and Roman [Latin]; and the Orthodox branches including the Greek, Armenian, Syrian [Syriac], Assyrian and Coptic; Protestants and Jews and 15 personal status codes and court systems that officiate personal and family matters for the various confessions).

In a Parliament of 128 seats, 27 seats are reserved for Shiias and 27 seats are reserved for Sunnis. Since 27+27=54, that means a majority of 74 seats are by definition unattainable to either Sunni or Shiia chauvinist parties, stuck as they are within their maximum, respective 27-seat-caps.

In this year’s election, for example, there is one Armenian Catholic seat being contested by five candidates. There are eight Druze seats being contested by 22 candidates. There are five Armenian Orthodox seats contested by 15 candidates and 14 Greek Orthodox seats contested by 60 candidates and eight Greek Catholic seats contested by 41 candidates and so on and so forth.

Even if many Sunnis and Shiia really do see themselves as being in a camp, either “pro-Arab” or “pro-Iran,” it’s a worldview that doesn’t necessarily mean much, for example, to many Armenians. Or Alawis, Assyrians, Orthodox or Catholics.

The largest Armenian party, Tasknaq, for example, has announced that in most electorates its candidates will join lists allied to the Hizbullah-aligned (predominatly Maronite) Free Patriotic Movement – but that hasn’t stopped Tasknaq from hedging its bets in a couple of seats where it will run on electorate lists led by the March 14 camp.

A section of the Greek Orthodox community, similarly, consistently votes for parties that many other Lebanese would view as being pro-Syrian, if not pan-Syrian. These guys are open-minded to being counted in either the Iranian or the Arab camp, depending on which way Syria goes.

It is a system that has encrypted into its DNA an extraordinary impulse promoting the formation of grand bargains, and deal-making compromises.

Less a unitary state than a confederation of tribes, Lebanese politics works best when no single sect dominates and it falls into civil war (1860s Druze vs Maronite, 1958 Sunni vs Maronite and 1975-1990 everyone-against-everyone else) whenever any sect overreaches itself, so provoking a reaction by all the others.

To stop the last war, for example, everyone has since 1989 agreed to pretend the country is half Muslim and half Christian, with 50 per cent of the seats in Parliament protected for each, with quotas per denomination divided according to that 1989 compromise.

On Sunday, Hizbullah is standing 11 candidates, three less than the 14 M.P.s that it held in the outgoing Parliament.

Even if the March 8 coalition that includes Hizbullah gets more seats than the “pro-Arab pro-West” March 14 coalition, there are parties within March 8 that could do a post-election deal with some of the parties that makeup March 14.

Of sixteen parties represented in Parliament, most would be open to the most eye-popping of deals post election day.**

In reality, then, there is a complex web of interactions at play in each particular electoral contest which means that it isn’t meaningful to talk about one Lebanese election so much as 128, or at least 74 distinct and separate, complex contests which makes the task of deciphering meaningful insights into regional geopolitical trends far fetched.

And the founders of modern Lebanon, most likely, would express little remorse at the accusation that the electoral system they devised stymies clear majorities, clear-cut winners and losers.

They would argue that the country really is best left alone as a confederation of tribes. A minimalist State where issues of family are devolved to respective religious authorities, and the State has a monopoly on next to nothing outside of regulating the important banking sector.

It is a system that delivers bloodshed when one group feels threatened. But it functions well enough to produce world-beating rates of economic growth even as its Parliament is gridlocked by having every group represented at the cabinet, each vetoing the other on anything controversial.

If, as expected, the March 14 coalition retain their majority in parliament then the business community is counting on the Prime Minister’s party to eat its words and renege on the promise to exclude March 8 from the Cabinet.

If, on the other hand, the March 8 bloc wins a majority of seats then expect them to work overtime to convince at least some of the March 14 parties to join a unity government “in the interests of the nation” – not to mention business.

And if neither bloc wins a majority ? That means the balance of power will be in the hands of independents – who will look to the Maronite President to put together a national unity government that will – most Lebanese hope – guide the country on a course to stay out of the next big war against Iran.

by Chris Ritchie

*The writer, for many years a financial wire services reporter, was born in Beirut and supports a March 14 coalition party with one seat in the outgoing Parliament, the Democratic Renewal Movement.

** March 14 coalition includes by far the biggest party in the outgoing Parliament, the Sunni-led (1) Future Movement of the PM and Finance Minister; the Druze-led (2) Progressive Socialist Party [a member of the Socialist International]; a number of Maronite-led parties including the (3) Lebanese Forces, (4) Phalangist Party, (5) National Liberal Party, (6) National Bloc, (7) Democratic Renewal Movement and the (8) Democratic Left Movement

**March 8 coalition includes the Maronite (1) Marada Party, the Armenian (2) Tashnaq Party, Greek Catholic-led (3) Skaff Zahle List, the Greek Orthodox-led (4) Syrian Social National Party, the (5) Druze-led Lebanese Democratic Party, the Shiia-led (6) Amal and (7) Hizbullah, the Maronite-led (8) Free Patriotic Movement and the Greek Orthodox- and Alawi-dominated (9) Lebanese branch of the Baath Party.