Lebanon: Parliamentary Elections 2009

No alternative on offer as the system repeats itself

The wheel of political life in Lebanon turns and returns to its starting point of electoral divisions and to the 1960 Electoral Law. This was chosen recently by Lebanon’s political leaders in Doha as the basis of contesting June 2009 elections. Going back 50 years, the political leaders agreed on electoral divisions based on the 1960 law and on the ‘majority system’ for the 7 June 2009 elections.

The 1960 electoral law increased the number of members of parliament from 66 to 90 (54 of them Christian and 45 Muslim). Today, these numbers have gone up to 128 MPs, with the division being 64 to Christians and 64 to Muslims. The 1960 law also divided Lebanon into constituencies on the basis of districts instead of regions, with the exception of several cases which saw the integration of two districts.

The1960 law divided Beirut into 3 constituencies: East Beirut (Al Ashrafieh – Al Sayfeh – El Rmeil), which comprise the majority of Christians, West Beirut (Musaytbeh – Al Mazraah – Ras Beirut), which has a Muslim majority, and the third constituency (Zqaq El Blat – Al Marfaq – Ain El-Mreysseh), which includes an equal number of Muslim and Christian minorities. The 1960 law was conducted in four consecutive elections: 1960, 1964, 1968 and 1972. From 1975 to 1992, no parliamentary elections were held as a result of the civil war. From 1992 until 2005, different electoral laws were used.

Today, some political leaders speak about the elections with confidence, claiming that by reverting to the 1960 law they are sparing the Lebanese from another “civil war”. This echoes the arguments of the 1991 Taif Agreement, which was about the inclusion of sectarian militias into the state. But the outcome of electoral laws, and the state structures that have come about as a result of the Tarif Agrement, in reality, means that sections of the state are now aligned to various sectarian and confessional-based militias.

Religious-based parties

Today, Lebanon is divided between many parties and religious sects, all calling for the ‘rights’ of their own ‘communities’. This means that to meet their representation in parliament, while avoiding another crisis, is leading the ‘community leaders’ to expect even higher polling than their real actual share of support. And if they do not get their desired polling the confessional based leaders will claim they are victims of injustice.

Christian and Muslim leaders have shown they cannot act to unify their ranks, voluntarily or even using repression, let alone unite the mass of poor and workers across all confessional and sectarian lines. The internal crisis of the political ‘communities’ can end with voting factions fighting it out to a standstill, leading to newly reassembled forces. For these leaders, the formula now determining the elections and the number of seats to be won is: “What is ours is ours and what is yours, is yours and ours”.

Today, the division in Lebanese society is between two sides: the opposition backed by Iran and Syria (led by Hezbollah, with a Shiite majority, and the Free Patriotic Movement, with a Christian majority), and the pro-government forces, backed by Saudi Arabia and the West (led by the Future Movement, with a Sunni majority). And despite the sharp political differences between the two sides, they do not differ from each other in their economic policies – they all support variations of ‘market-economy’ policies.

Of course, all sides want to be in a dominant position and they all try to take advantage of the masses’ desire for change to oppose the policies of the political opposition.

In the run up to the elections (like all previous elections) both sides have been trying to show that they work in the interest of workers, peasants and the poor, by making big promises on paper, for example calling for renewing the roads, improving maintenance of electricity networks, increasing water supplies and standards, raising the minimum wage and improving and repairing buildings.

They disburse election funds in a wild manner, and wage electoral campaigns and adverts in many different ways, such as advertisements on the roads, food aids, vouchers, reduced prices of some goods, until they get to the point of paying out large amounts of money to voters in public, without shame.

The election money is used by political leaders and warlords to win support in ‘their communities’, which are abandoned, without care, by the state.

Corruption and patronage

In this situation, how can the statutory body overseeing the elections succeed to ensure the elections are fair and without corruption or patronage, especially with deteriorating economic conditions that have become a daily reality for the voters, and which are likely to get worse?

In addition to all this, the community-based leaders exploit immigrants to get more votes, and they also play on the anger of the masses who demand rights, such as pensions and social security. At the same time, some of the leaders say the only way to deal with a financial deficit is to generally increase taxes, without giving an alternative to this policy.

But there is an alternative to Lebanon’s sectarian electoral cycle. This is the cause of the workers, poor and the oppressed. This would mean building a political alternative to the confessional-based parties and warlords. It means the struggle for a new mass party of workers, trade unionists and the left, based on a fighting programme that rejects neo-liberalism and for genuine change. Such a party, armed with bold socialist policies, could be capable of a real transformation of society in the interests of the majority of the people rather than the minority rich elite – for a genuine socialist system.

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June 2009