The practice of selecting political representatives by voting is not new to Lebanon. The parliamentary framework of modern electoral life in Lebanon was established in the 1926 constitution. Elections were held regularly during the French Mandate period, except for interruptions during World War II. Throughout the Mandate period, two thirds of the parliament was elected on the basis of universal male suffrage (women first voted in the 1950s); the remaining one third was appointed by the French authorities. The practice of appointment ended at independence in 1943.

In the period between independence and the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war in 1975, the basic tenets of Lebanese electoral law remained the same. Seats in Parliament were apportioned on a confessional basis with the Christian-Muslim ratio, based on the 1932-1936 census figures, set at 6:5. Each district was allocated several seats; this encouraged candidates to band together in lists, although candidates ran, technically, as individuals. Voters, regardless of their confessional affiliation, voted for all seats in the district, meaning candidates had to attract votes from all confessional groups. This system was designed to give all confessional communities a share of power, while at the same time encouraging candidates and voters to move beyond confessional boundaries.

1992 Elections

The 1975-1990 war interrupted the electoral calendar. The 1972 parliament renewed its own mandate repeatedly during the war and served until 1992. The elections of 1992 were held under the new constitution amended by the Ta’if agreement of 1989. The agreement established equal Christian-Muslim representation in Parliament and mandated that the large administrative districts of Lebanon (the muhafazat, currently six) be used as electoral districts to encourage confessional intermixing. The number of seats in Parliament was raised to 128.

The 1992 election law, however, dealt unevenly with districting. It followed the Ta’if agreement, using the muhafazat as electoral districts in the north, south, Bekaa Valley and Beirut. For the muhafaza of Mount Lebanon, however, the smaller qada’ districts were used as the electoral constituency in violation of the principle. This was done to protect the position of Druze leader Walid Jumblatt in the southern part of Mount Lebanon and to fragment the power of the Christian opposition in the northern parts of Mount Lebanon.

The elections of 1992 left much to be desired. The uneven election law was the subject of great political controversy, as was the timing of the elections — one month before the deadline for Syrian redeployment from Beirut and other parts of Lebanon to points in the Bekaa Valley and adjoining positions, as specified in the Ta’if agreement.

Participation in the 1992 elections at 30 percent was the lowest in Lebanese history, largely the result of a boycott by Christian opposition figures. The opposition objected to the election law and to holding elections under the Syrian presence. It also complained that there was not enough freedom for politicians to campaign.

During the elections, there was much mismanagement of the process, as well as accusations of widespread fraud. Nevertheless, the elections did take place and the new parliament eventually gained de facto legitimacy. Militia leaders who had gained power during the war were the main winners. The newly resurgent Islamist parties and a number of secular pro-Syrian parties also did very well, as did an independent bloc led by former Prime Minister Salim al-Huss in Beirut. [1]

The new parliament elected former Amal militia leader Nabih Berri as speaker and endorsed billionaire Rafiq al-Hariri’s cabinet in October 1992. In the 1992-1996 period, the parliament was kept busy with a heavy schedule of legislation and approval of government reconstruction, spending and borrowing plans. Although the parliament generally proved a pliant body, an opposition bloc of about a dozen deputies eventually emerged. Among the parliament’s most important decisions was the extension of President Elias Hrawi’s term of office in 1995 for an additional three years. This was especially significant, because the most important function of parliaments in Lebanon has traditionally been the election of the president.

1996 Elections

As the date of the 1996 parliamentary elections approached, debates focused on the electoral law, levels of participation and the usual political alliance-building and maneuvering. The 1992 election law had been issued with the disclaimer of being “for one time only” with the hope that the new law would restore a measure of fairness to electoral districting. In discussion of a new election law for 1996, various suggestions were debated, ranging from using the 26 smaller qada’s as electoral districts, to using the six muhafazat, to having a qualifying round at the qada’ level and a final round at the level of the entire country or adopting a mixed system (similar to the German, Russian or other European models) in which some deputies were elected at the qada’ level and others at the level of the entire country but on a proportional basis (Lebanon has never had a proportional representation electoral system). [2] In the end, the government issued a law virtually identical to the 1992 law, with different districting for different regions of the country. The law was challenged by ten deputies in parliament and sent to the Constitutional Court for adjudication. When the Court ruled that the law was unconstitutional, the government made some cosmetic changes, most notably adding the phrase “for one time only” again, and resubmitted it to Parliament. [3] Parliament approved it, but this time the ten deputies required to challenge the law’s constitutionality could not be mustered. The final law was passed only three days before election day.

The opposition that had boycotted the 1992 elections had begun to split over whether or not to boycott the 1996 elections. Some argued that the conditions that prevailed in the 1992 boycott still prevailed in 1996; others held that the boycott had not borne any real political fruits and had weakened the opposition, keeping it out of influential positions.

Israel’s April 1996 attack in southern Lebanon deflected attention from electoral politics for several weeks. By late spring, however, election fever had gripped the country in full force. The elections were held on five consecutive Sundays between August 18 and September 15. [4] The first phase was held in Mount Lebanon, followed by the north, Beirut, the south and the Bekaa. The government held the elections in Mount Lebanon first because the opposition was concentrated there, and the sooner it could be defeated, the easier it would be to go ahead with the other phases of the election.

The New Parliament

When the dust settled, the various pro-government lists had secured over 95 percent of the seats. The only true opposition candidates (one in the south, three in Beirut, two in Mount Lebanon, one in the north) represented a tiny and disjointed minority in the new parliament, although Hizballah, too, should be counted among the opposition, despite the fact that its nine deputies had entered Parliament through temporary alliance with Amal and other groups.

Among the pro-government forces, the largest bloc in Parliament belonged to Prime Minister Hariri, who could count between 30 and 40 loyalists not only from Beirut, but also from the north, the south and Mount Lebanon. Berri came in second with a bloc of between 20 and 30 deputies, followed by Jumblatt with ten. It was clear that in the new parliament negotiations would not be between pro-government deputies and opposition candidates, but among the various blocs of the multi-confessional governing coalition.

In the 1996-2000 period, the parliament will continue to be as politically pliant as it has been in the past. Historically, the Lebanese parliament has never brought down a government or played a particularly strong, independent role in legislation. Nor has it seriously monitored or curbed executive branch excesses. The institutional integrity of the 1996 parliament was further compromised by the leading role given in the Ta’if agreement to the speaker — by tacit agreement a Shi‘i Muslim — along with the Maronite Christian president and Sunni Muslim prime minister on general government policy. Parliament has increasingly become an instrument used by the speaker to provide or withhold support from the leaders of the executive branch — his partners in the “troika” — in the context of power-sharing disputes among the three.

Nevertheless, parliamentary elections remain an important means to ensure representation for various groups, gain legitimacy for the state and build consensus in the country. In past cases where important groups were excluded — notably President Chamoun’s opponents in the 1957 election and the secular leftist forces in the 1968 and 1972 elections — state legitimacy declined while political tension increased, contributing to the brief civil war of 1958 and the much larger breakdown of 1975. Many fear that the current policy of exclusion exercised through election laws and practices of 1992 and 1996 may lead to similar developments.

Democracy in Lebanon?

At the end of the day, the 1996 elections succeeded in reinforcing the power of the post-war governing coalition. The elections, however, were not able to enhance significantly its legitimacy, nor did they push forward the process of national reconciliation. The elections ultimately were widely regarded as predetermined by the election law, heavy government and Syrian intervention, the unchecked system of illegal patronage by government officials for electoral purposes, suppression of the opposition, and massive intervention and fraud. The elections showed that the governing post-war coalition was skilled and powerful enough to secure large electoral victories over the opposition. Shutting the door to participation in elections convinced many opposition activists and leaders that opposition and the politics of pluralism had to be carried into the street. With the ban on public demonstrations and various restrictions on the press and the audiovisual media, the opposition, which could claim about 30-40 percent of the vote in many districts, became increasingly muzzled and marginalized.

Determining whether the elections were “democratic” or not is no easy task. With such low levels of sovereignty and political freedom, an exclusionary election law, and various kinds of fraud and intimidation, it is hard to call the elections democratic. On the other hand, elections did take place, many hundreds of thousands did exercise their right to vote and the majority of deputies in Parliament today are there because they command large electoral constituencies. However, there is little doubt that if the electoral districts of the country were different and if the electoral law were more representative, the parliament would look dramatically different than it looks today.

With regard to the opposition in general, the suppression and muzzling of discontent is a particularly unwise policy for a pluralistic country emerging from 15 years of civil war, struggling to reestablish the legitimacy of its state and the credibility of its political and economic institutions. While the government-engineered electoral sweeps of the 1996 elections will not lead to unrest in the near future, a repetition of this behavior in the elections of the year 2000 and the continued suppression and marginalization of the press, associational life and so on, will likely lead to a gradual increase of bottled-up pressure, the consequences of which might be similar to the release of pressure that eventually shook the foundations of the Lebanese state in the past.

In 1998, when the current president’s term ends, parliament faces the task of electing his successor. Will Parliament, succumbing to outside pressure, amend the constitution again and renew the current president’s mandate, or will deputies push for a more independent line and shoulder their constitutional responsibilities to elect a new president for the struggling republic?

The current Lebanese government would be well-advised to learn that electoral democracy implies participation and power-sharing, not electoral engineering and elimination of the opposition. The democracy of power sharing, dialogue, participation and freedom is conducive not only to political stability but also to steady economic growth.


[1] For a full account of the 1992 elections, see Farid Khazen and Paul Salem, eds., al-Intikhabat al-Ula fi-Lubnan ma ba‘d al-Harb (The First Elections in Post-War Lebanon) (Beirut: Lebanese Center for Policy Studies and Dar al-Nahar, 1993).
[2] Nawaf Salam, Paul Salem and ‘Isam Sulayman, Iqtirahat fi Sabil Nizam Intikhabi Jadid (Suggestions for a New Electoral System) (Beirut: Dar al-Jadid, 1996).
[3] Habib Shalouq, “al-Majlis al-Dusturi Abtala Maddatayn min Qanun al-Intikhab” (The Constitutional Court Abrogates Two Articles of the Election Law), al-Nahar, August 8, 1996.
[4] For a detailed account of the 1996 elections, see Nicola Nassif and Rosanna Bou Monsef, al-Masrah wa al-Kawalis: Intikhabat 1996 fi Fusuliha (The Theater and the Backstage: The Elections of 1996 in Their Stages) (Beirut: Dar al-Nahar, 1996) and Lebanon Report (Fall 1996).

How to cite this article:

Paul Salem "Skirting Democracy," Middle East Report 203 (Summer 1997).

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