Saturday, November 28, 2009

Elimination of Sectarianism: If Not Now, When?

The current Lebanese political structure is built on two irrational and undemocratic principles: (1) Rigid Political Sectarianism for allocating posts and (2) equal distribution of parliamentary seats along a Christian- Moslem axis. In a country where political identity does not arise from citizenship but from cosmopolitan, regional, racial or religious identification the above is a recipe for disaster. If tends to perpetuate the divisiveness instead of the healing and it will emphasize the attributes that divide us rather than those that we hold in common. And the most egregious part of the above formula is that it treats some as being more equal than others by allocating to the Christians a proportionally higher level of representation than the raw numbers establish. It is as if each 4 Christian votes count for five, a 25 % premium.

Since it would be very difficult to rationalize such an inequitable and unjust system one finds that the Lebanese have repeatedly lent their vocal support to the need to abolish sectarianism provided no one ever does. This is precisely the reason for the maelstrom that has engulfed the Beri- Suleiman recent proposal to establish a committee that will recommend steps to be adopted in an effort to abolish “political sectarianism”.

Politicians on both sides of the aisle, especially those that belong to the March14 political grouping, have always advocated the enactment of the Taif accords which recommends a bi cameral Lebanese Parliament in addition to abolishing sectarianism in elections and civil service appointments . Meritocracy is to become the only workable criteria both in elections and in appointments. It would not be far fetched to envisage such a meritocracy as being essentially secular. Recent events have been very revealing and quite informative. We now know that the support for a non sectarian system was offered, especially by the Maronites,but only with some strenuous preconditions. Patriarch Sfeir, the Kataeb, the Lebanese Force, The Free Patriotic Movement among others have already stated very clearly their opposition to the plan by speaker Beri to form a committee as demanded by the Taef in order to abolish political sectarianism on the ground that this is not the right time for it.

So how can they be for it and yet against it at the same time? All the parties mentioned above in addition to some independents such as Justice Minister Najjar and Labour Minister Harb claim that they are in principle for eliminating confessionalism but are opposed to the step at the moment because it might result in the underrepresentation of the Christians. Yes you heard it right. They are for eliminating confessionalism provided it does not diminish their privileged position. This logic demands a clear cut answer to two issues: (1) if the status quo is to be maintained then why bother and change the system in the first place? And (2) isn’t the whole idea behind electing representatives on merit based on the principle that ones religious affiliation is not a factor in their identity?

Sectarian politics is the anathema to democracy, efficiency justice and equity. One cannot support it provided it results in favourable outcomes to her group. The benefits are to accrue to the common good and the results are known only after the fact. If we are to elect representatives based on their allegiance to the state and their commitment to its constitution then it shouldn’t matter whether we elect only females, only Shiites or only short men. What matters is that the representatives are Lebanese.

The accusations against Speaker Beri for daring to suggest that it is time to tackle this thorny issue of eliminating “political sectarianism” ought to be dismissed as disingenuous protestations. The timing of the announcement by Mr. Beri might very well be intended to stifle the attempts of some to make an issue of the legitimacy of the arms of Hezbollah but that is not material. A serious and thorough national dialogue about how to de-sectarianize the political system in Lebanon is already 66 years overdue and must not be postponed again. Our future depends on it.


Nobody said...

I don't know if you can eliminate sectarian politics by reforming the electoral system. Most people will continue to vote along sectarian lines. What you are doing basically is shifting the power balance and this thing is wrought with far reaching and dangerous consequences. Basically it's about unlocking the status quo and creating the situation in which the majority can impose its view on the minority. But you are still left with the situation in which the gap between the two sides is so wide that the minority may deem such situation unacceptable and refuse to comply.

Basically, if you really want to give representation in the political system to people who think outside the sectarian box, you need to introduce some kind of Israeli style system of voting for nationwide party lists. Say, you have some 30% of the population ready to vote for non sectarian parties. Technically speaking they may be the biggest "sect" in the country, but they should be in minority in almost any given voting district. To allow these people to be fully represented in the political system, voting should be nationwide and not per district. The only problem is that such systems are very likely to create fractured and dysfunctional political landscapes. You are basically replacing one dysfunctional system with another one hardly more efficient.

Gus said...

I do realize that the road to eliminating sectarianism will not be a smooth one. But if a state can manage to get its citizens to identify with the nation and not their religion then we will all be much better off especially if we can set up an efficient and trustworthy civil service mechanism that will hire based on ability.
It goes without saying that such a well entrenched method of thinking will not be erased with the strike of a pen. Success is not gauranteed but we have to start the discussions and to adopt a realistic workable plan that will move us in that direction. I suggest phasing in the reforms over a long period of time, waging major informational campaigns, setting up a bicameral parliament, encourage integration of all communities among many other smaller steps such as civil marriage, no mention of sect on ID cards or any other official records.
I would much rather take a chance on establishing a secular society rather than stay with the status quo that I consider to be totally unacceptable and has no promise for a better future. I think that we have no choice but to take the risk of eradicating sectarianism since that is the only road to a better and a more democratic future.

BTW, I have no problems with an electoral system that is designed to be proportional instead of a winner takes all. I also favour the US system of a single district for each parliamentary seat. Gerrymandering at times can have a positive aspect:-)

Nobody said...

Well, in my view you are looking in wrong places. I would check Swiss because this is the only country that I know to have created something functional in a similar situation. However, the Swiss model, as far as I know, is heavily based on something that seems to be anathema to the Lebanese. It's a system based on Cantons. But I think that here may lie the key to their success.

It's also important to keep in mind, however, that what the Swiss have is still some kind of nationalism. Even though crossing ethno-linguistic barriers, but nationalism it is indeed. This country right now is debating ban on building minarets and by other accounts this is not exactly a place bent on celebrating differences and diversities. There is very little there of cosmopolitan and universalistic all embracing attitudes in which some Lebanese are seeking solution to their mess. The Swiss lesson is more about how to develop normal nationalism in an impossible country.

BTW, I have no problems with an electoral system that is designed to be proportional instead of a winner takes all. I also favour the US system of a single district for each parliamentary seat. Gerrymandering at times can have a positive aspect:-)

As I said, you should address the situation in which your non sectarian electorate can be given proper representation. And as I said, your situation may well be that while a significant minority, these people (with a possible exception of some areas in Beirut) are nowhere concentrated in sufficient numbers to win a single parliamentarian seat. That's why I say that a 100% representational system is probably the only way.

ghassan karam said...

Let me make one thing clear from the outset. I am going to ask a question which you do not have to answer if you are not so inclined or if you do not have the time to do so.
In relatively brief terms which system would you prefer for a country the size of Lebanon and why? (1) 128 separate districts each composed of say 325000 eligible voters or (2) a single district for the whole country.

Nobody said...

A single district for reasons I partly explained above. I think this is the only kind of system that can give proper representation to the non sectarian electorate in Lebanon.

Gus said...

How would you respond to the complaints of those that would claim that a single party, for the whole country,takes away from independents the possibility of getting elected.

Gus said...

I meant a single district :-)

Nobody said...


I am not sure if single district systems are so unfriendly to independent candidates. I think quite the opposite is the case. One seat one district systems usually exaggerate majorities. Single district systems are actually prone to fracture political scene because just about everybody who can mobilize enough votes nationwide for one seat get represented. If anything such a system's shortcomings are usually all about overrepresentation and not the other way round.

Nobody said...

Let me get down to the details to make it more clear. Say, the last time I read something on the subject, the claim was that 30% of the Lebanese identify themselves as non sectarians. This is quite a lot. Probably no sectarian party can have so much support. Of course you should take into account that many of these people only like to think about themselves as non sectarians, they are actually sectarian to the bone. Another thing is that there should be at least two such parties, it's not going to be one non sectarian mega party vs all the rest. But say you do have 25%-30% of such people. It's enough to create the biggest party in the future parliament that can be a king maker and create a non sectarian core around which non sectarian Lebanese can organize themselves. Now what's about the electoral system?

It's very likely that these people are largely scattered around the country and there are very few districts where they form the majority. So in the South they will be trampled on by Hezbollah and in the center and the North by Christian and Sunni parties. Maybe they can win a couple of seats in Beirut and that's all. However, if you have a proportional system, then these people get exactly what they are worth of - 25%-30% seats in the parliament.

Now regarding Ghassan's idea. This is basically the end of Lebanon since Lebanon is an impossible country. The beauty of the current system is that it created the state of total paralysis. However, unlocking the stalemate will not eradicate sectarianism, it will only craete a situation in which one side will have to comply with the will of the majority. The problem, however, is that the two sides have mutually exclusive agendas. One side will never agree to disarm itself, the other side will never agree to a resistance state subjugated to the Iranian and pan Arab-Palestinian agendas. By manufacturing a clear majority to one of the sides, and this is what Ghassan's idea is very likely to end with, either the whole political system will be rendered irrelevant since the losing side will have to reject the outcome, or a civil war will break out. Or maybe the North will just say: We had enough of it. GoodBye. and the country will split (which is not the worst thing that can happen by the way).

The thing is that I am not sure that the current system is so bad. It's bad but the alternatives may be worse. But certainly the idea of creating a non sectarian system with the expectation that if one pretends that he is not sectarian, then sectarianism will go away, is not very practical.

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