Lebanon will begin its municipal elections on May 2, kicking off a four-stage process that will see voting on May 2, 9, 23, and 30 in the governorates of Mount Lebanon and Beirut, the Bekaa, the south, and the north respectively. The government mandated that municipal council elections be held every six years in 1998, following a hiatus that lasted some 35 years. Since the end of the civil war in 1990 and the Taif Accord that stipulated constitutional reforms, Lebanon has held five parliamentary elections and two rounds of local elections, the latter most recently in May 2004. The structural reforms—particularly those pertaining to electoral reform and administrative decentralization—written into the Accord, however, have never been implemented. The issue of reform has been raised before and after each of the elections held since 1990 without ever being translated into concrete measures, and the same is true this time around.
Regarding this year’s local elections, the Ministry of Interior and Municipalities put forward a bill to reform electoral laws in late 2009 (the government was only announced in November, following months of wrangling after the June parliamentary elections). By the time the cabinet reviewed the bill and submitted it to the parliament, it was already March 2010. The relevant parliamentary committees (the Administration and Justice, Financial, and Defense and Interior Committees) held inconclusive discussions and ran out of time. The Minister of Interior and Municipalities was obligated to call for the elections by March 30 in order to allow for them to be held on time in May—but under the old electoral law.
Proposed reforms in the bill would have constituted a fundamental challenge to the majority of the parliamentary blocs and political forces. The reforms include adopting a system of proportional (party list) representation, closed slates, a 20 percent quota for women, ballots pre-printed by the Ministry of Interior and Municipalities, and allowing university professors and government employees (below a certain level) to run for the municipal councils. These changes would have strengthened the role of political parties in the system and allowed broader and more accurate representation of society in the parliament.
The proposed reforms also would have required parties to attain a greater degree of internal cohesion based on political platforms, a factor that is sorely lacking in most political parties in Lebanon. The parties opposed a proportional electoral system and closed slates out of fear of fragmentation and internal disputes, because the reforms would have required them to select candidates from among their ranks. They prefer instead to maintain the current majoritarian system, in which citizens vote for individual candidates and seats are allocated per district based on predetermined confessional divisions
Although the parties are aware that the proposed reforms would enable an effective party system to displace traditional family-based rivalries eventually, for now the inertia of the present system is too great to overcome. Reformed electoral laws, expanded municipal powers, and administrative decentralization each would threaten the patronage networks and favoritism that have dominated politics since the establishment of the Lebanese Republic. From 2006 to 2008, Lebanon went through a paralyzing political crisis; even after the 2009 parliamentary elections, there was a wide gap between political forces that had to be overcome before an inclusive national unity government could be formed. With painful memories of this political crisis still fresh, there is a strong preference among Lebanese politicians to avoid a potential destabilizing showdown over the local elections. The political parties thus are defining the municipal elections as family and clan-based races aimed at local development and services, with no significant role for the political parties.
This fact has become apparent in the electoral alliances and slates that have emerged across a range of constituencies, even those that were expected to host tough electoral battles, such as the districts under the influence of the Christian parties. For example, Hizbollah and Amal have allied in all of the Shi’i-majority districts (the south, the Bekaa, and the southern suburbs of Beirut), while in Mount Lebanon there is also no real competition for the Progressive Socialist Party. In Beirut proper, the emphasis is on equal divisions along sectarian lines, as is the case in a number of other politically sensitive cities such as Sidon, Jounieh, and Amchit. In the Matn district (which has a large concentration of Maronite Christians), recent adversaries such as Michel Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement, the Phalange, the Lebanese Forces, and Michel Murr have set aside their differences for these elections.
Even as foot-dragging by the government and parliament has delayed reforms, the limited time available between when the elections were announced and when they are being held has hampered any dialogue that might have been held on the municipal councils and their role in local development. Instead parties have been hiding behind the slogan that "development is a family and local affair,” exposing their own incompetence and inability to provide effective policies for the country at large. The question remains: how can parties claim that municipal elections are about families and local development, not politics, when it is clear that Lebanese politics is built around families and services?
Karam Karam is a political science researcher and program director at the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies. He is the author of Le Mouvement Civil au Liban (Paris: Karthala, 2006). Paul Wulfsberg translated this article from Arabic.