'Watching without playing' in Beirut
By Ziad Baroud -Special to The Daily Star
Tuesday, May 11, 2004
The municipal elections in Beirut on Sunday were considerably different than the first round of elections last week in Mount Lebanon - a district where opposition groups are well represented. The players were not the same, and it was unclear before the contest whether the battle was between opposition- and government-supported lists. Moreover, the rules of the game were different, because the current municipal law, passed in 1977, prohibits true representation in the capital.
The elections reaffirmed the value of local representation, which was absent in Lebanon between 1967 and 1998, when local elections last took place. We should recall that during the peaceful years of that long hiatus, there was no justifiable reason for avoiding holding municipal elections. If the suspension could be justified during the war, it was remarkable that it took the authorities eight post-war years (before which two far more potentially sensitive parliamentary elections were held, in 1992 and in 1996) to consider organizing municipal elections.
In April 1997, the Lebanese government sought to extend the terms of local councils yet again (a practice repeatedly adopted as of 1967). In July, Parliament followed suit by approving the decision. However, civil society groups began a national campaign against the automatic extension under the banner "baladi, baldati, baladiyati" - my country, my locality, my municipality - and petitions were circulated demanding that elections be held. The campaign soon gained momentum and a group of parliamentarians also unhappy with the extension took the issue before the Constitutional Council. The council canceled the extension, forcing the government to organize municipal elections in 1998.
The multiplicity and recurrence of elections have helped guarantee an improved electoral climate. There were irregularities during the first round of local voting in Mount Lebanon last week. However, the repetition of the electoral experience created a situation in which voters were more able to identify and prevent fraud. In terms of sheer quantity, the abuse was clearly less than that during the 1992 and 1996 parliamentary elections, for example. At voting centers, candidates' delegates, and indeed voters themselves, were in a better position to defend their right to engage in as transparent a voting process as possible.
The bases on which voters decide who to vote for in municipal elections are different than those that apply during parliamentary elections. In municipal elections, parochial concerns tend to dominate, and the outcome of the Mount Lebanon vote was to a large extent the fruit of family and local factors and personal relations and calculations.
While the Lebanese are not necessarily schizophrenic in voting differently in municipal and parliamentary elections, the authorities and parliamentarians who agreed to the municipal election law surely were. That's because they allowed Beirut to vote on the basis of a 27-year-old law that considers the capital one electoral district, although it was divided into three electoral districts for the parliamentary elections of 2000. It was unacceptable that the electoral process should have failed to reflect balanced representation in Beirut. Because of the single electoral district, a system of simple majority, and the presence of a Muslim community outnumbering Christians, the latter felt marginalized, and this had both negative confessional and political implications.
In 1963, Kamal Jumblatt, who was then interior minister, proposed dividing Beirut into 12 electoral districts, according to the contours of the city's "historic" neighborhoods. The project never materialized. In the election on Sunday, Prime Minister Rafik Hariri sought to balance representation by backing a list that had an equal number of Christians and Muslims. This was not enough, however, for two reasons: first, because Hariri's goodwill initiative was a personal one and had no institutional basis; and second, because it effectively meant that the 12 Christians would be elected by a Muslim majority, effectively preventing the capital's confessional and political minorities from having a say in who would be their representatives.
Beirut's division into nonartificial electoral districts would have led to better and more proportional representation. The majority would have remained a majority, but minorities would not have felt excluded. This is the true meaning of democracy. On Sunday, ballot boxes were filled with pro-government votes, and that was legitimate. But, on the opposition's side, there was frustration, provoking solely a reactive mechanism where voters watched without playing.
***Ziad Baroud is secretary-general of the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR