OPED42 Lebanese Elections
Am I the only person completely unable to figure out what is going on in the Lebanese elections based on the simplistic reporting in the U.S. media (television and newspapers) and declarations by U.S. politicians? From these you would believe that there are two clearly-defined blocs - the "pro-Syrian" faction and the "democratic" opposition. The reality is much messier... multiple groups vie for power, creating and shedding alliances at a dizzying pace. For example, (as of this writing) the Maronites appear to have split into at least three main groups, the "Gemayel" group allying itself with Saad Hariri (son of the assassinated Rafiq Hariri), the "Geagea" group allying itself with their old enemies the Druze, and the group 'belonging' to ex-general Michel Aoun (recently returned from 15 years of Syrian-imposed exile in Paris) allying itself with the pro-Syrian Emile Lahoud! Some 'known knowns' and 'known unknowns':
- The Lebanese National Assembly has 128 seats, divided as follows: 64 for Christians (Maronites - 34, Greek Orthodox - 14, Greek Catholic - 8, Armenian Orthodox - 5, Armenian Catholic - 1, Protestants - 1, "Minorities" - 1) and 68 for Muslims (Sunnis - 27, Shia - 27, Druze - 8, Alawite - 2). The country is divided into five regions that are further divided into 14 electoral districts. These in turn comprise 27 constituencies with between one and 10 seats, allocated on a sectarian basis. The five regions vote on different dates - Beirut region May 29th, the south on June 5th, the Bekaa Valley and Mount Lebanon on June 12, and the north on June 19.
- The guiding election laws were written by Lebanon's pro-Syrian parliament in 2000. They provide for a system designed to preserve peace in this divided country by allotting seats to 18 different ethnic and religious groups. The President is always a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker a Shia.
- Beyond the fact that this arrangement enshrines sectarianism and ensures the perpetuation of religious and ethnic divisions, there are numerous issues with this "democracy" - the last official census in Lebanon was in 1932 (it is too explosive to arrange one); the Christians estimated at 40% of the population have half the seats, as do the Muslims, estimated at 60% of the population; absentee voting is not allowed, disenfranchising the (very many) Lebanese who live outside Lebanon; you can only vote in the village or town your forefathers were born in, thus requiring that people travel to their birth place at least twice during elections - once for voter registration and the other time to vote;, the minimum voting age is 21 (alienating the many in the 18-21 age group); many who have been born and lived their entire lives in Lebanon may not vote as it is extremely difficult in Lebanon to become a naturalized citizen, etc., etc.
- There are no real parties, primaries, platforms, debates, conventions, etc. There are a few families that are the main power brokers (traditional "zaim" or feudal-like lord) that choose candidates in back-room deals. As a result the blocs are lead by leaders, or the children, grandchildren, or wives of former leaders. Examples include Walid Jumblatt (son of Kamal Jumblatt), Saad Hariri (son of Rafiq Hariri), Solang Jemayel & Amin Jemayel (widow of Bashir Jemayel a son of Pierre Jemayel, and another son of PJ), Astride Geagea (wife of imprisoned Samir Geagea), etc.
As a result of the above factors many of the seats are not in doubt, given that the candidates are unopposed. Of the 19 seats up for grabs in the Beirut region, 9 fell into this category. That was one factor that lead to a poor 28% voter turnout in the May 29th elections, which were swept by Saad Hariri's candidates.
A 'known unknown' is what the final outcome of the elections will be, and what they mean to the future of Lebanon. We can only wish them luck and hope that the country does not descend back into violence and bloodshed. And, hopefully, the U.S. media and politicians will do their homework and provide us with information that enlightens us re what is really going on in an immensely complicated part of the world.
© SNi 06/04/05