Lebanon's Elections - What's at Stake?
The Lebanese elections being held today have created excitement because they have overturned the pro-Syrian status quo of the last 30 years. They have also produced great disappointment because the Zaim system has remained largely unchanged. All the old names and "feudal" lords are back. "Revenge of the Zaims" might be a good movie title. Also it would seem that Saad Hariri is set to become Prime Minister, or to name the future Prime Minister, even though he has no experience save being the son of his father.
I have just returned from several days in Beirut, where I gave a few lectures at AUB on Syria. But I also had time for a delicious dinner at Majana's with my favorite journalists: Michael Young of the Daily Star and Reason, Nicholas Blandford of the Christian Science Monitor, and Anthony Shadid or the Washington Post.
We had a long discussion about the meaning of the elections. We all remarked that there was a widespread sense of let-down about how little of the "New Lebanon" was being realized and how much of the "old Lebanon" had reemerged - the confessionalism, old families, horse trading, and deep seated distrust across communal lines.
Michael Young, a Maronite, and champion of Lebanon's confessional system, had little time for our grips about the old Lebanon. "What do people expect?" he asked. This is Lebanon. We are all part of the confessional system. Even if you scratch Aoun, you find a confessional minded person," he insisted. (Aoun is the politician who poses as the destroyer of the old system and champion of a new united Lebanon.) "It is 10 times better than the authoritarianism Lebanon is surround with." That is the real alternative to the Lebanese system. We should be grateful that we have real pluralist politics, and the Lebanese should stop bitching." So said Michael. By and large, the Maronites are happy with the present system because they are guaranteed 50% of the parliamentary seats, despite being around 40% of the Lebanese population. They see attempts to refashion the system as a threat to their constitutional guarantees under Taif and an attempt to marginalize them.
This did not stop Anthony or Nick from insisting that the Lebanese were disappointed. Anthony's article today is all about how the old Zaims are back. He focuses on Jumblatt, but it is about all Lebanon and how the communities remain divided:
Lebanese seek to map a future mired in past
By Anthony Shadid, Washington Post, May 29, 2005
It's politics as usual in Lebanon, more than two months after hundreds of thousands of flag-waving Lebanese poured into downtown Beirut this spring, furious over the assassination Feb. 14 of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, which they blamed on Syria. In what they proclaimed the Cedar Revolution, they demanded the end of a generation of Syrian dominance over their tiny, mountainous country.
The Syrians have since left, but Lebanon is perhaps most remarkable for how little else has changed. "We gave an impression to the world that we were united again," said Sarkis Naoum, a respected columnist for An Nahar, a leading newspaper. "But this unity is still on the surface, this unity is still superficial, it's not deep. If the political classes and the politicians and the leaders of the religious communities don't deepen this national unity, it will melt like the snow.
Hassan Fattah of the New York Times also stresses how little has changed in his article, "New start in Lebanon is slowed by old rules." A large per cent of the candidates were assured of their success before the elections began because of the way election lists are hammered out in back rooms. It is not about campaigning. Many candidates ran unopposed.
The 128-member Parliament is evenly split between Christians and Muslims, while the country's demographic distribution is widely different. In effect it means that Christians, who make up less than 40 percent of the population, have far more influence in Parliament than Muslims, with almost 60 percent.Reuters confirmed the disappointment felt by Lebanese in its article on the low turnout at the polls in Beirut today and total success of the Hariri ticket. "Hariri slate wins Beirut poll, turnout low: Candidates led by the son of slain former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri have won all the seats in Beirut polls, but turnout was low."
If there was one article that infuriated my Christian friends this week, it was:
Lebanon's election: Free but not fair
By Annia Ciezadlo, Washington Post, May 22, 2005
Every week, my husband and I take a rickety old taxi to Hezbollah country. The emerald city of downtown Beirut, with its glittering luxury towers, drops away behind us; ruined buildings, their shell-shocked hulks festooned with laundry, loom ahead like ghost ships.Shiites, like the much smaller Sunni community, have 27 seats in Parliament as compared to the Maronites' 34 seats. The rest are divided among other sects.
We soon leave Beirut proper and reach the dahiya -- the dense and sprawling Shiite crescent, half suburb, half slum, that cradles the city's southern borders. In the dahiya, home to my in-laws and a large swath of Beirut's population, the recent anti-Syrian protests that became known as the Cedar Revolution seem like a fairy tale. "As an area, as dahiya, we're not concerned about what's happening in downtown," one college student told me in March while demonstrations raged in Martyrs' Square. "We regard what's happening as a joke."
Around the world, however, the candy-cane banners and multilingual college kids of the uprising caught the imagination of millions. Holding parliamentary elections on time, free of Syrian influence, became democracy's new rallying cry. President Bush cautioned against delaying the poll, scheduled to run on four consecutive Sundays beginning May 29.
But Bush and other well-meaning Americans are ignoring a fundamental problem: With Syria gone, Lebanon's elections will be free, but they won't be fair. In Lebanon, Muslim votes, especially Shiite votes, count less than those of Christians. Literally. During the last election, in 2000, politicians running in the primarily Muslim south had to get three times as many votes to win a seat as those running in some Christian areas.
This kind of argument makes Christians particularly angry. "But Nabih Berri, the speaker of the parliament, is very strong. He has been speaker for 15 years and nothing gets done in government with out his say so," Christians correctly point out. "Berri shut down parliament before the new election law could be discussed and, especially, before a vote on pardoning Geagea could go through. Why do the Shiites complain? It is just whining."
"Hizbullah is a scandal", my Christian friends insist. "What other country allows an armed militia to run around threatening people? We can't even visit some areas of the South because the Hizb won't let us. It is blackmail, worse, it is terrorism. How can they say they are working for Lebanon when they are only interested in themselves and are hurting Lebanon?" That is how my Christian friends see it.
UPDATE: Michael Young just sent me his written response to the
Annia Ciezadlo's article, which has been published by the Post. You can see whether I represented his argument correctly. Here it is:
Annia Ciezadlo missed the point about Lebanese democracy, which is based on the representation of religious communities as opposed to a "one person, one vote" model.Of course, the greater threat may be that Hizbullah will only trade in its guns if the Christians give up their 50% share of power. Hizbullah may try to upset the Lebanese apple cart by insisting on re-write the Taif Accord and by demanding closer to a 40% share of seats in Parliament, a share that better represents the actual number of Shi`is in the country. The other sects, particularly the Christians, would be asked to give up power to the Shiites. This is the long-term threat of Hizbullah and it is why the party makes Christians so nervous. It is also why Taif has become a sacred script to Christians, while it is seen as antiquated by many Shiites.
Yes, Christians are a minority in Lebanon, although the figure Ms. Ciezadlo cited of 23 percent was wrong. The CIA World FactBook estimates Christians at 39 percent of the population. Perhaps Ms. Ciezadlo confused the Maronite community with Christians as a whole.
And, yes, Christians received half the seats in parliament. Far from being "state-sponsored discrimination," however, this distribution was the fruit of a compromise among the religious groups and today is not challenged by any of them.
The logic was that all religious groups would have a role in a system of set-asides and that they would be reassured enough to remain a part of Lebanon. When the formula was agreed upon at independence in 1943, it was enlightened: By positing a weak central authority and strong sects, it allowed Lebanon to avoid the authoritarianism prevalent in the Arab world.
Further, the alleged Christian advantage is far less simple than Ms. Ciezadlo presumed. For example, since the constitutional changes of the Taif Accord in 1989, the presidency, which goes to a Maronite, has lost much of its power, while the longest-serving senior official since war's end has been the Shiite speaker of parliament.
Finally, the election law that Ms. Ciezadlo lamented was imposed in part through an alliance between Hezbollah and another Shiite group, the goal being to marginalize their Christian and Shiite opponents in south Lebanon. The law actually discriminates against Christian voters, although, as a remnant of Syrian rule, it surely will be changed.
Despite its flaws, the Lebanese system merits more sympathy than many in the West accord it.
So long as the Shiites are the only group to carry guns, they will have more than their constitutionally allotted power. To give up their guns, Hizbullah may demand a larger number of parliamentary seats and more constitutional power as recompense.
These thorny constitutional questions loom in the future. The 1975 civil war was fought over the issue of communal representation. Lebanon's "new" unity will be put to the test when it comes to renegotiating communal representation once again.