American Univesity of Beirut

How can the electoral law constitute a gateway to political reform?

​​The Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs (IFI) at the American University of Beirut (AUB) organized a webinar titled "How Can the Electoral Law constitute a gateway to Political Reform?" that took place on Wednesday, June 24, 2020. Participants included Saleh Al-Machnouk, lecturer and researcher in political science at Cambridge University; Zeina Al-Helou, researcher and political activist; and Michel Doueihy, professor of political science at AUB. The discussion was moderated by Ziad Al-Sayegh, senior policy fellow at IFI.

The webinar commenced with a commentary by Ziad Al-Sayegh in which he outlined the past thirty years of Lebanon’s parliamentary electoral law, and the entanglement of such policies have with the will of the political authority, the latter controlling the linchpins of the legislative authority and, consequently, the executive power. Subsequent to the toppling of the government, and following the October 17 Revolution, Al-Sayegh foresaw the assumption that a government of independent professionals would be formed to oversee the holding of early parliamentary elections that would reshape the authority as a prelude to political reform. This was said to pave the way for structural reforms in all sectors.

During the webinar, several questions were challenged concerning:

- The possibility of holding early or on-schedule parliamentary elections;

- The barriers and catalysts, such as questioning what criterions of an electoral law lead to the validity and fairness of representation, as well as what results should be expected if the revolutionaries participate in the parliamentary elections, with a unified program and vision.

In her address, Zeina El Helou stated that, “we cannot blame the electoral law for all the problems of the Lebanese regime.” She noted that the law is a tool to produce an authority that works for the benefit of the people during a specific period of time while accounting to the fact that we cannot produce an electoral law during political instability. For her, the questions that are being inquired today are linked to how such a law will better convey the voices of individuals. She further mentioned that, “we should take three elements into consideration; the regime and the division of district, the management of the electoral process whose importance surpasses the importance of the division of district, and the general framework of these elections.” El Helou specified that the aforementioned three elements all affect the formation of the vote, its submission into the ballot box, and its access into parliament, adding “the will of the voter to vote must me given consideration through thinking of electoral behavior and not only electoral law. The best evidence for this is that some people did not vote in the 2018 parliamentary elections because they refused to vote for the entire list, and preferred to elect individuals.”

Saleh Al-Machnouk continued by suggesting that no country has consensus on its electoral law, because the primary goal of any electoral law is political. He further explained that there an absence of ideal or non-controversial law, the electoral law remains one of the most important political pillars for forming the regime. He additionally stated that, “in the existing social divisions in Lebanon, we can learn from other countries that have sectarian diversity.” This comes as the predominance of the idea of not recognizing sectarian denominators has become outdated, and the crux of the matter today is the recognition of the existence of the various peculiarities and identities in order to work to reduce its negative effects in the electoral process and politics in general.

Al-Machnouk noted that there is a trend among those who work in public affairs and academics in Lebanon, and asserts that the electoral orientation is liberal under a liberal law, but claimed that such a concept remains a fallacy. He pointed out that, “it is our duty to marshall our energies into thinking about the goals we seek, achieving a balance between the reality on the ground and the values and voting spirit of a civil nature.” Al-Machnouk concluded by emphasizing that, "we are in a crucial moment because we are halfway between the start of the revolution and parliamentary elections," warning against the idea of postponing the parliamentary elections from five to seven years. His cautioning stemmed from major political motives.

Conclusively, Michel Douaihy pointed out the prevailing pessimistic mood in the country and the anger emerging as a result of the absence of an electoral law based off of a real political debate taking place between revolution groups. He additionally claimed that, “it is the first time today, since the beginning of the revolution, that we hold a panel discussion on the electoral law.” Douaihy further contended that the current law, in its actual form, cannot give the revolution more than four or five members in the parliament. He noted that the political authority establishes the electoral law that it wants, in order to reproduce itself. Therefore, it is important to note that the approach to the electoral law needs to take into account the existing political scene. As a recommendation, Douaihy stated that the mood of the various confessions still dominating Lebanon demonstrates that the time has come to learn how to move from "belonging to a group," to "belonging to citizenship."

Douaihy mentioned that, “elections are a long process that need a long preparation time. And in light of the concern that the parliamentary elections will be postponed due to political goals related to the presidential elections, there must be a serious focus and preparation for the municipal elections that may constitute the main entrance to the political change that we aspire to in The October 17 Revolution.” In his closing remarks, Douaihy concluded that "we want a broader electoral law that allows a civil political discourse emanating from the revolution, benefitting the country politically and defusing its tensions."

To read the Arabic version, please click here​.

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