On June 16, 2017, Lebanese legislators ratified a new parliamentary election law and tentatively scheduled polls for May 2018, thereby ending more than eight years of delays and paralysis. This law improves important elements of the electoral framework: for instance, it adopts proportional representation and preferential voting—potentially more inclusive than the majoritarian system that Lebanon has used since its independence in 1943. However, the redistricting could further entrench sectarian politics, and the proportional representation is undermined by technical measures that could water down its benefits to the community. The law also hampers women, poorer people, smaller political parties, and independents seeking to run for office or elect representatives to advance their interests.

The new law delineates districts that are more representative—in that they accommodate long-standing communal demands for more accurate representation—than any used since the end of the Lebanese Civil War. In elections held during Syria’s occupation of Lebanon (1992, 1996, and 2000), Syrian security services drew up districts based on provinces (muhafazat), counties (qadas), and ad-hoc units to marginalize opponents of their occupation. In 2005, after the Cedar Revolution and Syrian withdrawal, the hastily held elections still relied on the districting of the 2000 election law. The 2009 parliamentary election law was drafted during the 2008 Doha Conference, which major parties had convened to end sectarian clashes. That law’s 26 districts—mostly counties, except some combined units like Baalbeck-Hermel or split units like Beirut I, II, and III—reflected their agreement. In essence, this system gave each of the major parties representation in parliament, allowing them to control districts designed to avert further clashes.

The new law groups together 27 counties to reduce the number of districts to 15, most of which have a clear confessional majority. In Beirut, for instance, there are two districts: Beirut I, which is made up of mostly Muslim constituencies and is represented by eleven parliamentarians, and Beirut II, which is made up of mostly Christian constituencies and is represented by eight parliamentarians. Maronites will compete or cooperate with Maronites in districts like Jbeil-Keserwan, just as Shia will compete or cooperate with Shia in Baalbek-Hermel. The new districts have been drawn up to accommodate established parties seeking to maximize the benefits of forthcoming electoral alliances. The Lebanese Forces and Free Patriotic Movement will likely run together, which makes their coalition a strong favorite in majority-Maronite districts like Jbeil-Keserwan and Batroun-Koura-Zgharta-Bcharre. Hezbollah and Amal, which have had an uneasy electoral alliance that has lasted since 1992, will still sweep seats in majority-Shia areas like Baalbek-Hermel and Zahrani-Tyre.  

But in striving to accommodate communal demands and political preferences, the new law reinforces sectarian groups, thereby abandoning the integrative goal of the Taif Agreement. Under that agreement, elections are organized by province—the largest administrative units, such as Mount Lebanon or the Bekaa Valley. Because such provinces are more communally, socially, and ideologically diverse, political parties and traditional elites would presumably be more likely to form cross-communal coalitions and appeal to a wider range of voters. As before, seats within a district are still allocated according to its communal affiliation, but in making districts more religiously uniform, the majority community ends up having a greater influence over who wins the seats allocated for the minority communities. For instance, voters in Tripoli-Minieh-Danniyeh, where the majority of the population is Sunni, will elect eleven representatives, including the three reserved for Maronite, Alawite, and Greek Orthodox candidates. And, in a district that combines the counties of Batroun, Bcharre, Zgharta, and Koura, voters (most of whom are Maronite) will elect ten representatives, including the three reserved for Greek Orthodox candidates.

In addition, the new law introduces proportional representation instead of the majoritarian systems used in previous elections. Under the old system, the top vote-winners in each district took the relevant parliamentary seats—regardless of their affiliation, coalition’s performance, or their opponents’ performance. Under the new proportional system, candidates and/or coalitions compete with each other for shares of a district’s seats. The threshold for winning a seat is determined by the “electoral quotient,” derived by dividing the number of voters in a district by its number of allocated seats. Citizens also have the option to pick one preferred candidate in their sub-district constituency. In this proportional system, the Lebanese stand a better chance of electing a truly representative parliament. While parties may wish to reelect incumbents and established political figures, voters are now more able to elevate members of smaller political parties, technocratic reformists, or civil society organizers to the top of parties’ electoral lists.

However, the law includes technical measures that minimize these effects of proportional representation. Because the “electoral quotient” is a formula and not a fixed threshold, smaller districts have higher thresholds for parliamentary representation. In the Sidon-Jezzine and Baabda districts, which have five seats apiece, parties face a 20 percent threshold—double the 10 percent fixed threshold that was also considered. The Aley-Chouf district, however, has thirteen seats and therefore a 7.7 percent threshold.

Moreover, individual candidates will be ranked according to the percentage of preferential votes they receive in each of the 27 sub-district constituencies. Voters in small constituencies—who tend to be loyal to local leaders, whether because of clan-based relationships, ideological affinities, or dependence on patronage networks—will have more sway over candidates’ rankings within each district. Voters in larger constituencies will be undervalued. Reformist candidates without a local power base, but who might have been able to cobble together votes across a district, will find it more difficult to compete for seats than they would have under a purely proportional system or even a district-level preferential voting method.

The law does include some progressive social and technical reforms. After decades of debate and lobbying, Lebanese in the diaspora will be able to vote from their countries of residence instead of having to travel to Lebanon—and political parties will be less likely to trade plane tickets for favorable votes, as they did in 2005 and 2009. Diaspora voters will also be able to elect their own parliamentary representatives, though not until at least 2022. These citizens, whose remittances form about a sixth of Lebanon’s GDP, will be able to participate in the political process more fully and more easily.

Moreover, the Lebanese will now vote on a single date, not four successive weekends as under previous laws. And with elections set for May 2018, officials have eleven months to prepare security plans; train polling staff on rules, procedures, and methods; and prepare ballots, stations, and other facilities. All participants, from established political parties to civil society organizers and independents, now have sufficient time and space to coordinate, cooperate, and concentrate their electoral efforts.

Even so, the new law does not address serious sociopolitical issues. It does not institute a quota for women in parliament or adopt measures to promote women in the public sphere. Women remain underrepresented in state institutions and marginalized politically. Currently, only four women are members of parliament, out of 128 lawmakers. Only one sits in the cabinet.

Similarly, the law keeps in place restrictions that prevent poorer people from running for office. Candidates must now pay a registration fee of 8 million Lebanese lira ($5,300)—quadruple the 2009 fee—that acts as a barrier to poor people, small parties, and independents. In contrast, the law increases the financial advantages for established leaders and political parties. During campaigns, a candidate may legally spend up to $100,000 plus $3.33 per registered voter in a relevant district, a 20 percent increase that will allow established parties and wealthier people to spend millions more in each district than they did in 2009. Parties (who do not receive funds from the state) may nominate and pay delegates to monitor election stations, which means that larger parties will—as they did in 2009—employ tens of thousands of people who will be disinclined to report irregularities that favor the party. Furthermore, the new law allows organizations and foundations—which could conceivably act as conduits for wealthy individuals, political parties, or even foreign entities—to spend money to promote certain coalitions or candidates.

Beyond its specific shortcomings, the manner in which politicians adopted the law—mostly behind closed doors and outside of formal institutions—perpetuates the inter-elite bargaining upon which the Lebanese system rests. While the law does provide an opportunity to elect new representatives in parliament or ratify the incumbent parties’ politics and policies, it does not make Lebanese politics as free and fair as many hoped. For nearly a decade, Lebanese leaders have heralded the introduction of proportional representation and other measures that could allow independent Lebanese to nudge their way into state institutions. Instead, they have assured that little will change.

Anthony Elghossain is a Beirut- based lawyer and writer. Follow him on Twitter @aelghossain.