Will Lebanon Be Saying “Same System, New Law” Post-Election Day in May?

By Marlene Zieah

After multiple pushbacks, Lebanon is preparing for its first parliamentary election in nearly ten years.[1] On May 6, 2018, the people of Lebanon will vote under the country’s new election law, which is based on proportional representation rather than the plurality system that has been in place since 1943.[2] Although Lebanon’s constitution requires elections to be held every four years, the country has experienced significant political turmoil, causing it to postpone critical moves in restoring stability and protecting national security.[3] Since early 2011, Lebanon has been in a state of political “gridlock,” and its central government continues to weaken.[4] In 2013, Lebanon’s parliamentary elections were cancelled due to disagreement among the country’s three key political forces.[5] A key issue was what position Lebanon should take with respect to Syrian President, Bashar Al-Assad’s, continued control during the Syrian civil war.[6] Other contentious issues included electing a new Lebanese President, and whether the country should favor establishing a U.N. Special Tribunal to investigate the assassination of former Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri.[7] However, the most controversial and debilitating issue was the fate of Lebanon’s governmental system, which is a form of democracy based on the allocation of power amongst different religious groups.[8] Finally, in June 2017, Lebanon made the first move in addressing these concerns when it enacted a new electoral law intended to satisfy both traditionalists and activists.[9] The question remains on whether the new system will further Lebanon’s longstanding goal of sectarianism in government or lead to regional destabilization.[10]   


            Understanding just how far-reaching the effects of Lebanon’s new electoral law will be requires understanding the fundamental problems in its old electoral system.[11] In Lebanon’s old plurality system, members of parliament and government were placed in positions based on specific majoritarian religious sects.[12] Further, high governmental roles utilized the same placing strategy, also focusing on the nation’s majority religions, i.e., Christians and Muslims.[13] For example, the Lebanese president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister must be a Sunni Muslim, and the parliamentary speaker must be a Shi’a Muslim.[14] However, this type of system made it advantageous for the leaders of each religious sect to remain divided on issues that were central to the nation’s success as a whole.[15] Ultimately, it paved the way for such leaders to place external political interests above those of their very own Lebanese voters.[16]


            Lebanon’s new electoral law has received both optimistic hope from proponents, and pessimistic “much of the same” rhetoric from opponents.[17] The electoral law has implemented several new changes, including allowing non-resident citizens the right to vote, and decreasing the amount of electoral districts from twenty-six to only fifteen.[18] However, the most substantial change was moving from a plurality system, to one of proportional representation.[19] In other words, instead of having multiple candidates compete and granting all seats in a particular district to the one candidate with the most votes, candidates receive seats based on the proportion of votes they receive.[20] The idea is to increase the amount of religious diversity among members of parliament, and pave the way for non-traditional, progressive candidates to have a voice.[21] However, Lebanon may have underestimated how the new electoral law will impact the existing regional tension, especially that involving Iran and Saudi Arabia.[22]


            Proponents of Lebanon’s new electoral law believe that outsiders in government campaigning on issues that are important to the people will likely restore the nation’s faith in its political leaders.[23] Lebanese political strategist, George Ajjan, stated that potential candidates in 2018, whether they be traditional or independent, will finally address “key issues” to the Lebanese people, including  “electricity provision, waste disposal, health, education, and jobs.”[24] In explaining why he thought the new electoral law was a “great achievement,” Lebanese President, Michel Aoun, stated that as the nation’s population became more religiously diverse, the plurality electoral system no longer allowed for fair representation, especially given that Christians no longer represent the majority faith.[25] Although candidates for the 2018 election are still surfacing, many Lebanese political parties have joined alliances in order to win over districts.[26] These efforts have made it possible for negotiations to take place between political parties and their constituents on reformative matters which otherwise may never have transpired under the old framework.[27]


Opponents of Lebanon’s new electoral law take issue primarily with its potential for abuse and failure to implement key proposed changes.[28] Because Lebanon’s electoral system is sectarian-based, foreign nations, especially those in the middle east region, have political interests in making sure that their nations’ majoritarian religion is represented in Lebanese government.[29] For example, Saudi Arabia, a predominantly Sunni Muslim nation, has significant economic leverage over Lebanon.[30] If Shi’a Muslims and Christians support Lebanon having closer ties with Iran, it could ultimately tip Saudi Arabia over the edge.[31]


Another potential for abuse in the new electoral system is that the districts are drawn in a way that substantially increases the amount of parliamentary members elected predominantly by voters of the same religion.[32] This is especially true with respect to Lebanese Christians because the nation’s two major Christian political parties, the Free Patriotic Movement and the Lebanese Forces, participated in creating the new electoral map.[33] Lebanon’s Foreign Minister, Gebran Bassil, stated that while the new electoral law is more just to minorities, it will eventually lead to Lebanese Christians being able to elect all of the parliamentary seats allotted to Christians.[34] These effects, while they do not compromise equal representation amongst the various sects, pressure candidates to please constituents that share the same religion, instead of encouraging them to create a more diverse following.[35] 


Critics of Lebanon’s new electoral law also believe it does not do much in the way of election reform considering the vast amount of proposed changes that never materialized.[36] For example, the new electoral law does not include quotas for women candidates, permit soldiers in the nation’s armed forces to vote, or amend the voting age requirements from twenty-one to eighteen.[37] Further, its regulations on campaign-financing are dangerously lenient, especially in light of its failure to establish an impartial commission to oversee the election process.[38]

            All in all, whether Lebanon’s new electoral law will preserve its sectarian-based, equal distribution of power in government, has yet to be seen. However, one thing’s for sure, the current state of affairs in Lebanon will cease to exist post-election day.  



[1] Yaroslav Trofimov, In Lebanon’s Long-Delayed Election, Hopes for Fresh Faces, Wall St. J. (Jan. 18, 2018, 5:30 AM), https://www.wsj.com/articles/in-lebanons-long-delayed-election-hopes-for-fresh-faces-1516271401.

[2] Id.

[3] Will Lebanon's New Electoral Law End the Stalemate?, Al Jazeera (June 15, 2017), https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2017/06/lebanon-electoral-law-stalemate-170615064815219.html.

[4] Elias Muhanna, Is Lebanon’s New Electoral System a Path Out of Sectarianism?, New Yorker (June 29, 2017), https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/is-lebanons-new-electoral-system-a-path-out-of-sectarianism.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.; see Sandra Mackey, Lebanon: A House Divided 51 (2013).

[9] Muhanna, supra note 4.

[10] Id.

[11] The New Electoral Law: How Does It Work?, BlogBaladi (June 19, 2017, 10:07 AM), http://blogbaladi.com/the-new-electoral-law-how-does-it-work/.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Will Lebanon's New Electoral Law End the Stalemate?, supra note 3.

[15] Muhanna, supra note 4.

[16] Mackey, supra note 8, at 100-01.

[17] Muhanna, supra note 4.

[18] Will Lebanon's New Electoral Law End the Stalemate?, supra note 3; Richard Salame, Lebanese Expats Can Now Vote from Abroad, So What's Stopping Them?, New Arab (Dec. 11, 2017), https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/indepth/2017/12/12/whats-stopping-lebanese-expats-voting-from-abroad-1.

[19] Will Lebanon's New Electoral Law End the Stalemate?, supra note 3.

[20] The New Electoral Law: How Does It Work?, supra note 11.

[21] Muhanna, supra note 4.

[22] Trofimov, supra note 1.

[23] Muhanna, supra note 4.

[24] Id.

[25] Will Lebanon's New Electoral Law End the Stalemate?, supra note 3.

[26] Lebanon Elections: Zahle Tripartite Alliance in the Making, Asharq Al-Awsat (Feb. 7, 2018, 10:30 AM), https://aawsat.com/english/home/article/1167481/lebanon-elections-zahle-tripartite-alliance-making.

[27] Id.

[28] Muhanna, supra note 4.

[29] Mackey, supra note 8, at 257-58.

[30] Id. at 257; Lebanon’s Economic Dependence on Saudi Arabia Is Dangerous, Kataeb.org (Dec. 12, 2017, 10:54 AM), http://www.kataeb.org/articles/2017/12/12/lebanon-s-economic-dependence-on-saudi-arabia-is-dangerous.

[31] See Lebanon’s Economic Dependence on Saudi Arabia Is Dangerous, supra note 30.

[32] Muhanna, supra note 4.

[33] Id.

[34] Will Lebanon's New Electoral Law End the Stalemate?, supra note 3.

[35] Muhanna, supra note 4.

[36] Id.; Will Lebanon's New Electoral Law End the Stalemate?, supra note 3.

[37] Will Lebanon's New Electoral Law End the Stalemate?, supra note 3.

[38] Muhanna, supra note 4.