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Lebanese Electoral Law Redresses Christian Rights

The proposed electoral law should allow Christian parties to have a greater say in Lebanese politics, writes Scarlett Haddad.
Lebanese Christian leader Michel Aoun arrives at the Presidential Palace in Baabda, near Beirut, to attend a new session of the national dialogue, June 11, 2012. Lebanese politicians held a National Dialogue meeting aimed at resolving deep rifts which have been exacerbated by the unrest in neighbouring Syria and have spilled over into unrest inside Lebanon. The last such meeting was held 18 months ago, before the Syrian uprising erupted.  REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir (LEBANON - Tags: POLITICS) - RTR33FHE

Beyond the political statements and strictly electoral interests, the current negotiations over a new electoral law in Lebanon are a fundamental change in Lebanon’s internal balance of power. The willingness of Christian parties to reclaim their parliamentary seats under the leadership of the Maronite Patriarchate goes beyond the desire of one political camp to score a victory against the other. For the first time since the Taif Accord, it allows the Christians to regain some tangible rights, which they had lost.

In fact, if we go back in time a little, we remember how the Taif Accord took away much of the Christians’ rights, then called “privileges,” by stripping away presidential powers and giving them, in principle, to the council of ministers. According to the Taif Accord, the council of ministers was supposed to include all Lebanese sectarian components and be split evenly between Muslims and Christians.

Moreover, Taif officially established strict Christian-Muslim parity in the number of parliamentary deputies and in the government jobs of first category. But this parity was only numerical. In other words, there was an equal number of Christians and Muslims in public institutions, parliament and government, but the Christians in those jobs did not represent the Christian base. There were chosen by the Muslim political forces allied with the Syrian guardian. Political groups representing the Christian base at the time were completely marginalized after they engaged in a fratricidal, murderous, bloody and destructive war, which resulted in a total Syrian occupation of the country. Gen. Michel Aoun was forced into exile. The Lebanese Forces leader was put in prison. And former President Amine Gemayel lived abroad.

Officially, Taif produced no winners and losers. But in fact, the winners were the Muslims, especially Sunnis, whose victory was embodied by the leadership of Rafik Hariri. The losers were the Christians. The best evidence of that is that the 1992 elections were boycotted by the great majority of Christians, with the approval of the Maronite Patriarch, without the boycott preventing the formation of a new parliament, which had Christian deputies elected by less than 50 votes.

And so, the Christians had become a small component in Lebanese politics. To occupy important positions, they either had to ally themselves with Muslims or be endorsed by the Syrian guardian. Parliamentary elections were held according to this same ritual, where Christians were elected by Muslims whether Sunni, Shiite or Druze.

After Syrian troops withdrew from the country in April 2005, Aoun returned from abroad and Samir Geagea was released from jail, the Christians believed that the situation would change because they constituted an active element in the March 14 alliance. But instead of considering the Christians as full partners, Saad Hariri’s Future Movement and Walid Jumblatt’s PSP preferred to form a quadripartite alliance with Amal and Hezbollah, leaving the Christians outside. Moreover, the electoral districting allowed the Christians to choose their representatives through their own votes in only three districts: Jbeil, Metn and Keserwan.

This practice, which has been going on since Taif (1990), fed Christian frustration because the electoral situation remained the same despite the political changes. The Christians became the weak link between the omnipresent Sunni community and the rising Shiite community, while the Druze continued to play the balancing game.

With the current debate around the new electoral law, the status quo that lasted for years is changing. Whatever the final outcome of the discussions, the new law will give Christians a large part of their electoral seats, which would no longer be elected by Sunni, Shiite or Druze votes. In other words, Christians would no longer be at the mercy of the Future Movement (whose main component is Sunni), the Shiite duo, and even less Walid Jumblatt [the Druze leader]. This is a fundamental shift that goes beyond purely electoral interests because it allows a rebalancing of the Taif Accord, which was really unfair to the Christians. Thus we see a new political landscape emerging: the major Christian parties united under Bkirki’s leadership alongside the Shiite duo, which supports this new situation, and a large Sunni mainstream that finds itself isolated and weakened.

This new situation would not have been possible without some internal, international and regional factors. At the international level, it is in harmony with the Vatican’s position. The Vatican is concerned about the Christian presence in the region and in boosting the political weight of the Lebanese Christians in order to send a strong message to the other Christians in the Middle East. It is also in this context that we must place the Maronite Patriarch’s initiative to gather the various Christian components, which are traditionally hostile to each other, around common denominators.

At the regional level, this new situation reflects both the determination of Iran and its allies to counter a possible conflict between Sunnis and Shiites by strengthening the alliance between the Shiite and Christian communities and, on the other side, benefiting from the confusion in which Saudi Arabia (the traditional sponsor of the Lebanese Sunni community and the Future Movement in general, and the sponsor of the Taif Accord) finds itself in as it is torn between its hostility toward the Syrian regime and its Lebanese allies and a fear of a possible destabilization in Lebanon.

Finally, at the internal level, the new situation would not have been possible without the signing of the agreement between Hezbollah and Michel Aoun’s FPM in 2006, which has continued to strengthen throughout the years and events. Without the support of the Shiites and Hezbollah, even if all the Christians united, they would not have been able to achieve such a political rebalancing. Certainly, March 14 Christian parties (particularly the Lebanese Forces and the Kataeb Party) are not planning, for the moment, to split from the Future Movement, but their relationship with it will gradually become more distant because the new electoral campaign requires it.

Scarlett Haddad is an analyst at the Francophone Lebanese daily L'Orient-Le Jour. She specializes in Lebanese domestic political issues, in addition to Syrian, Palestinian and Iranian matters as addressed from Lebanon's perspective, including topics concerning Hezbollah and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

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