By Joseph Bejjani
How does the Lebanese parliamentary elections law No. 44 on the election of the members of the parliament implicitly impede women from reaching the parliament?
The representation of women in politics is strongly related to the electoral law and system adopted in any country. That is why meticulous effort is exerted in creating election laws to ensure they promote equal chances of representation, fair candidacy rules, transparent vote counting, and other democratic measures necessary for the political advancement of any regime. However, not all election laws prioritize gender-based equality in representation. This is a serious policy issue that jeopardizes democracy and equal political participation among genders in several countries. The Lebanese Parliamentary Elections Law No. 44 on the Election of the Members of the Parliament is one of these laws that implicitly disfavors equal representation among men and women. Law 44 has changed the electoral system in Lebanon from a majority election system to a proportionality election system. The voting and vote counting procedures will be detailed in the upcoming sections. Unfortunately, this law does not promote equality among genders, further affecting independent women candidates. The feminist agendas of some of these candidates, which prioritize gender mainstreaming, women's rights, and social justice, are hindered by this law and do not reach the rest of the parliamentary agendas. The number of women elected in 2018 by Law 44 is critically low with just 6 female representatives from a total of 128 parliamentarians, amounting to just 4.7% female representation (The Daily Star Lebanon, 2018). This obviously implies that Law 44 is fundamentally flawed and disfavors independent women representation.
Law 44 has several shortcomings related to women representation in politics. First, article 52 prohibits a candidate from running individually and necessitates their participation in an electoral list (Ministry of Information, 2018). These lists mainly include members of the same political party, their allies, or at least candidates that share the same agenda. The currently ruling political parties do not have feminist agendas nor do they prioritize gender equality in their work. This shortens the options for independent feminist candidates because their agenda as described above surely doesn't suit the agendas of these already present lists. On another note, it is undeniable that independent female candidates usually have lower resources available to them compared to the traditional male party-member candidates in Lebanon. To illustrate, most ruling parties in Lebanon have strong alliances with foreign countries who act as sponsors or donors to these parties. These alliances manifest themselves strongly in political campaigns where the traditional elites dominate over the media, leaving no room for independent candidates. Apart from funding, being an independent female candidate does not muster abundant resources in a fallacy-infested patriarchal society. This makes it even harder for women candidates to create their own list and run for the elections.
A counter argument may be that several candidate lists included at least one woman candidate in the latest election. First, let me explain in simple terms how the proportionality election system works in Lebanon. The candidates organize themselves in lists of 8 members after completing the required paperwork for candidacy per the specified deadlines and regulations of Law 44. Voters choose a list to vote for while also selecting only 1 preferred candidate from that list. The more votes a list gathers as a whole guarantees that more candidates from that same list reach the parliament, yet candidates on the same list usually agree among themselves informally to organize their ranking.This means that the list that succeeds in gaining a sufficient number of list votes, will then choose the candidate that has accumulated the largest number of preferential votes within the list. This individual is usually the leader of the party as agreed informally. The candidate that ranks second on the list is usually the helper of the political party leader, vice president, or a strong member in the same party as the candidate that ranked first. This leaves women on these lists behind and rank as far as fifth, sixth, seventh, or even eighth. We also seldom see a list that guarantees a number of votes that huge to select 5 of its members. What is worse is that this woman candidate would have aided in the election of the male politically-dominant member because she would have sacrificed the 200-500 votes she secured to the greater benefit of the list. All of these factors are the primary cause behind electing the same male politicians and few women candidates and even none at all like in the Maten district and others.
Any law amendment is the direct responsibility of the Lebanese parliament because it is the entity with legislative power. Nevertheless, it is the parliament that did not pass a fair law in the first place. As a result, the only true actor capable of affecting change towards gender-equality is the coalition of several Civil Society Organizations (CSOs). This coalition has united grassroots initiatives, secular parties, independent NGOs, academia experts, activists, and the non-aligned media. They have different means and operation schemes, but all serve the same purpose: mobilizing intellectual and monetary resources to build a new more inclusive government, where rights are preserved and equality is prevalent. The coalition has further manifested itself through the protests that started on October 17, 2019 and the awareness people have gained on the importance of equal political participation. These groups have been severely attacked by the current ruling politicians that have a robust ability in blocking the access of new political actors especially if these new actors refuse any alliance with the former. Several were the attempts that tried to divide them and thus make them weaker. False news has been spread by media outlets aligned to political parties to jeopardize their image in society. It is undeniable that these constant attacks and the widespread epidemic have slowed their pace, yet these have not stopped them.
If the current political class continues to rule, incentives should be replaced by more binding obligations to ensure gender equality. This has been already adopted in the conditions imposed by the international community to provide aid to Lebanon in its economic crisis. After the Beirut Port explosion on August 4, 2020, a consortium of donors was created to help Lebanon recover from the devastating effects of this disaster. Several countries and international organizations such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have provided temporary aid, and have promised to pool more resources to help Lebanon recover from its economic crisis only if the Lebanese government commits to sincere reforms. The reforms include but are not limited to the formation of an independent cabinet, a forensic audit, a transparent investigation into the explosion, and judicial reform. Provision of foreign aid should also mandate that an electoral quota is imposed and laws that enhance women representation are passed. On a national level, many draft laws inspired by the Boutros Commission proposal suggested women quotas, a minimum number of women candidates, and other steps (Walid Hussein, Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, 2017). In 2011, the Civil Campaign for Electoral Reform pushed forward innovative suggestions. Still, none of these laws have been agreed upon due to the incessant debates among the ruling parties and the dilution of these suggestions which are always deemed as non-urgent.
A quota enforcing a minimum of 33.33% women representation at all stages of the government is compulsory. This quota should be passed by the Lebanese parliament as soon as possible. Effort should be exerted by the media and academia to dilute the pillars of patriarchy in our society to help promote equal rights of participation. In the short term, the current civilian protests in the streets are the key to pressure the passing of a quota. Immediate amendment of article 52 of law 44 to allow independent candidacy for the next parliamentary election is a must. The voting age should be decreased from 21 to 18 years to pave the way for a more inclusive representation taking into consideration that the 18-21 age category is always underrepresented (Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections, 2017). Another approach may include passing a law to restrict the election of an already elected member of the parliament who has served for two consecutive 4-year periods. In other words, this new law only allows for eight consecutive years of parliamentary activity after which the same candidate should wait four years to rerun again. This will automatically encourage new faces to appear and of which women would have a greater chance to reach the parliament.
We have already witnessed that any change in Lebanon and especially reform necessitates relentless efforts, patience, and ample time. Law 44 should be amended per the suggestions outlined above to ensure an equal and fair chance for all candidates and specifically to promote gender equality in the political sector. The upcoming parliamentary elections are planned on 6 May, 2022, yet no clear vision or will was displayed from the current ruling class to amend Law 44 or on whether the elections will truly occur on the official date. The pre-election parliament has illegally extended its service period three times in 2013, 2014, and 2017, delaying new elections for five consecutive years. It is only under extreme strain that the parliament has decided to pass the preferential voting law to avoid another illegal extension. The new law was submitted just a few days before the legislature's term, so not much is expected from the state to be done about its shortcomings. From another perspective, the state does not regard representation inequality as an issue in the first place. Instead, ruling parties have favored disproportionality to make sure the same candidates from the pre-election parliament get elected again. The important question remains: Will the scenario of illegal extensions repeat itself, or will we observe tangible amendments in the near future?