A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

a multi-faceted look at the middle east, and the middle west

some citizens are more equal than others: Lebanese citizenship, Lebanese voting

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on January 4, 2007

My friend Eugene (whose name I obstinately continue to spell with a final “e” despite ample evidence of a preferred other spelling) has an op-ed in today’s Daily Star, commenting on a dying proposal to revamp Lebanon’s overseas voting process. Currently, no absentee voting is allowed (just one more of the many ways in which Lebanon most resembles its southern neighbor …). Among other electoral reforms, the Boutros proposal establishes a procedural framework for absentee voting, to be conducted by Lebanese embassies and consulates around the world.

Lebanon’s electoral laws and voting procedures often breathe new life into the phrase banana (or perhaps in this case kibbeh) republic. Absentee voting is just one of many contested issues – including such hot button matters as districting (voting districts in Lebanon vary in size, shape, population, and type – making gerrymandering moves in the United States look like the work of inept pre-schoolers) and women’s citizenship (Lebanese women are full citizens … except when they marry and have children. Children of Lebanese men are Lebanese citizens; children of Lebanese women are … stateless.). Much reform is needed; Eugene argues that for all its flaws, the Boutros proposal is a solid first step.

Why is everyone ignoring the Boutros proposal?

Eugen Sensenig-Dabbous

Lebanon experienced a unique window of opportunity between the parliamentary elections of 2005 and the summer war of 2006. High hopes were placed on Prime Minister Fouad Siniora’s Cabinet. The new coalition government included not only ministers from all major political groupings, but also Hizbullah for the first time in the party’s history. Though many promises were made by the Cabinet, few were kept, mainly because of the unexpected war. Among the victims of the conflict was the parliamentary draft election law approved on May 31, 2006.

On July 8, 2005, the Cabinet authorized the former foreign minister, Fouad Boutros, to set up a national commission to propose recommendations for a new parliamentary law to govern elections in 2009. Applying a broad-based stakeholder process, the commission collected statements and views from experts and members of civil society at home and abroad. For the first time ever in Lebanon, a draft law received input from the Lebanese people. Until the end of 2005, outsiders were able to submit suggestions and demands on topics as wide-ranging as the rights of women, youth and people with disabilities, the setup of polling stations and the format of electoral ballots, absentee voting rights for the Lebanese diaspora, and the thorny issues of sectarian gerrymandering and the introduction of a proportional voting system.

International players, including the United Nations Development Program, the European Union and Western non-governmental organizations, provided expertise and logistical support for this pioneering process. Domestic NGOs, such as the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections (LADE), the Lebanese Transparency Association (LTA), and the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies (LCPS) all provided links and access to the general population.

The resulting electoral proposal had flaws, leaving it open to criticism from many sides. For example, the Boutros commission won’t have the teeth needed to overcome resistance to the law’s implementation. This opposition will come from the confessional, political and clan powerbrokers who currently run the electoral process to their mutual advantage. The draft only takes timid steps in the direction of deconfessionalization. Most importantly, the introduction of proportional voting for 51 out of 128 seats, with 77 deputies elected according to a majoritarian system, will require a monitoring system so complex that even seasoned European experts would be overwhelmed.

Despite its weaknesses, however, the draft is a legitimate basis for a new electoral law and was widely discussed in the media. This culminated in a conference on June 29-30 organized by LADE, the LTA and the LCPS in the context of a Civil Campaign for Electoral Reforms.

The draft law never made it to a first reading in Parliament because of the outbreak of July-August war. During the weeks of hostilities and the immediate post-war period, Lebanese civil society was forced to focus on remedying the destruction in the country caused by the Israeli onslaught. By late September and early October, however, the opposition’s demands for new elections put the idea of a new election law back on the agenda. Even voices as diverse as Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the European commissioner for external relations, and Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir went on the record as backing early elections.

Neither the Lebanese majority nor the opposition, however, seemed to remember that a draft election already existed. In a recently published assessment of the situation in Lebanon, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group observed: “Although neither majority nor opposition has clearly indicated what kind of electoral law it backs, significant progress has been made by the independent and widely respected Boutros Commission, which gave its recommendations to the government on 1 June 2006. Its proposal would more fairly apportion power between various confessional groups and promote competition through a mix of majoritarian and proportional representation. No political party has rejected its conclusions.”

The draft election law is currently being disregarded by both its purported friends and, less surprisingly, by its declared enemies. In a last-ditch effort to save the law, some former members of the Boutros commission have joined forces with student activists and professors at major Lebanese universities to form the University Initiative for Electoral Reform. The goal of this initiative is to awaken the nation from its collective amnesia and salvage the stakeholder character of the electoral reform law.

That’s why it’s worth repeating: A draft law exists for electoral reform in Lebanon, and it has benefited from the input of many in Lebanese society. It makes no sense in the present climate to ignore the proposal to death.

Eugen Sensenig-Dabbous is an assistant professor of political science and cultural studies at Notre Dame University in Lebanon. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.

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