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An “OMG Law” for Lebanon During Election Year?

2013 is a parliamentary election year for Lebanon and this means that once again, electoral law debates are making headlines in a country marked by institutionalized sectarianism.

The local context can be tricky to understand: Members of Parliament are elected in each district by universal suffrage, but parliamentary seats are distributed between the different religious communities. Christians get 50 per cent of seats and Muslims are allocated the other half. In theory, this aims at minimizing discord between the country’s 18 religious confessions and ensuring proper representation of all communities. In practice, members of underrepresented communities accuse the system of gerrymandering.

Image from Lebanon's 2009 Parlementary Elections, by Sana Tawileh on Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

In the heated squabble for a fair application of democracy, a draft law dubbed the “Orthodox Gathering Election Law” was the topic of a recent controversy. It suggests that instead of dividing Lebanon into electoral districts, all citizens in the country vote as members of a single district, and each community will be electing their own MPs. This means that people would only be able to vote for representatives of their own sect. You can read the full text here [ar]. While some support the proposal, arguing that it would allow a proper representation of all Christian communities, others strongly rejected it; but the law could also have unexpected results according to commentators online.

@Paul_Salem expressed fears that such a law would only exacerbate sectarian divisions in the country:

@Paul_Salem: So-called #orthodox election law proposal suggests each religious community elect its own deputies; would be ‘great leap backward'.

On A Separate State of Mind, blogger Elie Fares states he strongly rejects the sectarian arguments:

I believe that what the Orthodox Law is telling me is unacceptable. But I’m a Christian minority in thinking so. Most Maronites and Christians, especially some of our politician who double as Christian saviors-wannabes, want you to believe that what I believe is wrong. They are telling you that their way is the only way for you to get your rights. They want you to believe that if Christians don’t elect every single Christian-designated MP, then they’re being persecuted.

The Orthodox Law isn’t the way we get back our “rights.” We get back our rights by voting to people who can fight for those rights without turning it into a media propaganda as they kickstart their 2013 election prospects. We get back our rights by actually knowing what our rights are. And let me tell you, those rights aren’t Lebanon’s Christians selecting half of its parliament all by themselves.

It's also worth noting that, as always, the Lebanese election law marginalizes the many who simply don't identify with any recognized religious communities. @LeNajib wonders :

@LeNajib: If you're an atheist or agnostic, who do you vote for under the Orthodox law? #JustAsking

On the other hand, some argue that the law proposal is justified. @maidenrose1 tweets:

@maidenrose1: Orthodox Electoral Law is similar to Robin Hood; sometimes you should do Bad things for Good reasons #LebanonSectarianSystem #TaefAgreement

Interestingly enough, according to some, this could also be an opportunity to be seized for liberals. Elias Muhanna explains on his blog Qifa Nabki that if implemented, the law could have unexpected effects. The proposal (he calls it the OMG Law) could, in a way, help dismantle sectarianism by mobilizing the many citizens who are frustrated by the country’s sectarian system. He adds that, if passed (although he doesn’t believe it will), the law could pave the way for a senate, and also be an opportunity for liberals to get elected:

Under the OMG law, there will be no hiding the fact that Lebanon’s “consociational democracy” has devolved into nothing more than a constellation of sectarian communities who coexist in uneasy and suspicious alliances. The myth of inter-confessional harmony will be shattered.

(…)I think it’s worth noting that a Lebanese parliament elected on the basis of the Orthodox law is nothing more than a senate, at least as it is envisioned by most of the people who have thought about it at any length.

(…) It would seem to create unprecedented opportunities for reform-minded candidates to get elected. By implementing proportional representation in a single national district, the law drastically lowers the barriers to entry for candidates outside the mainstream political parties.

In a similar perspective, blogger Karl Sharro highlights four unintended consequences of the law:

1-Should the Orthodox proposal be adopted, it will be the first time under any election law that secularists will be able to pool their votes nationally, albeit under sectarian groupings. (…)
2- Sectarian mobilisation will be weakened if there is no threat from other voters ‘distorting’ the process. (…)
3- Paradoxically, sectarian credentials will become less important than competence and political credibility. (…)
4- Local zo’ama (leaders) will eventually lose their power. (…)

On Beirut Spring, Mustapha adds:

If the Orthodox election law is in effect and the existential fears of Christians was reduced, what excuse will people use to prevent Lebanese women from granting their children the lebanese nationality, to treat Palestinian refugees with dignity or for that matter to have a decent demographic census in the country to properly allocate development funds?

The question is: Should we lose respect for the liberals who decide to endorse this law for the aforementioned reason? Should we admire the fact that they’re finally thinking tactically? Or would we rather they languished in high-minded hell than endorse such a morally questionable law?

The proposal was promoted online and on television with this video [ar], where people from different Christian sects state their religion and hometown, then express their concern over the fact that they don’t feel represented in Parliament with the current electoral law.

In the days that followed, clever parodies of the TV advert appeared online, with people stating random identity markers, from their blood type to being a hipster. Don’t miss the YouTube video [ar] by Ali Zakaret, and Karl ReMark’s take on his blog [ar].

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