Lebanon is holding its first parliamentary elections since 2009 on May 6, despite the constitution’s provision for electoral processes every four years. In order to understand what is at stake, we spoke with Marwan Maalouf, lecturer on civil liberties at the Holy Spirit University of Kaslisk in Beirut and political analyst.
Euronews: Mister Maalouf, Lebanon’s president is always a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of the parliament a Shi’a Muslim. This seems an element of elitism. The system incentivizes elites of each sectarian designation to maintain antagonistic divisions, preventing political mobilization around specific issues. People vote according to their religious affiliations, not a political programme. Can this new electoral law change things?
Marwan Maalouf: Lebanese constitutional system is a parliamentarian one, but a religious one as well. We do not live in a secular state and that’s why, even in parliament, seats are divided between Christians and Muslims and, as you said, the head of the country and the head of the parliament are distributed between Christians and Muslims. In addition to that, Lebanon is a consociational democracy. It means that every major decision is taken with the approval of all the religions. Which makes us not really a democracy and which weakens the the opposition, the government and the ruling majority. Most of the time in the last ten years we have had coalition governments with different parties that do not share the same vision for Lebanon. So you will have an opposition within the government which leads to a lack of accountability in the country. That’s why until today a number of political parties are still using a religious element in their campaigns, pushing people to vote based on their beliefs, rather than on a programme or on their achievements. It has been the case for a long time. The new electoral law, maybe with the new division of the districts as well, contributed to that.
Lebanon, for once, looks relatively secure. Despite a tense few weeks last November, when Prime Minister Saad Hariri temporarily resigned under duress. What kind of role does Saudi Arabia play right now?
Definitely, we have had problems in Lebanon when it comes to sovereignty. Most of the ruling parties have ties with foreign actors. Saudi Arabia is one. Iran is another. Even United Nations. So we have a real issue of sovereignty. One of the people’s demands, when they took to the streets during the last couple of years, was the independence of the decision-making process in Lebanon. It is a plague. A lot of political parties in this country do not even hide that they get financial support from foreign countries and a number of times these parties defend the positions of those countries and their foreign policies. As I said: we do have an issue of sovereignty. The crisis around Lebanon does not help and pushes parties to choose camps within the foreign countries playing a major role in our inner politics.
Mister Hariri was in Paris where he met with president Macron. What kind of role does France play in this political puzzle?
In the last year Paris and president Macron have been trying to play a bigger role in Lebanon. First Macron played an essential role when our prime minister was held under duress in Saudi Arabia. Macron also played a role in the negotiation process and in bringing back first minister Hariri in coordination with the president of republic. Macron wants to play the same role as did with president Chirac. Definitely, France wants to play a political and economic role In Lebanon.
The day-to-day burden of national security has fallen to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). Coordinating with the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon in the south, and cooperating with Hezbollah’s forces in the northwest. How is the situation on the ground right now?
Well, in the last year and a half security has improved. Especially after our army took the fight to Daesh and other terrorist groups at the borders. The Lebanese army was supported by the people in this fight. People are still pushing our authorities, because they want security. We have avoided a lot of potential attacks in the country, because Lebanon since 2005 went through a large number of political killings and security breaches as well. Last year, despite the turmoil and the huge number of refugees in Lebanon, despite the fact that the government was not dealing well with the Syrian issue, at least, from the security point of view we have been able to minimise the damage.
The elections are less predictable than usual thanks to the debut of new voting laws, will this change the relationship between the Lebanese and their political representatives?
Parliament has cancelled elections three times, so this is a great step back to democracy. That is why the Lebanese people are very motivated to vote. We witnessed Lebanese living abroad starting to vote, which is the first time this has happened in Lebanese elections. The fact that this is the first time since 2009 that we can finally vote, has played an important role in motivating people. They want their representatives to be elected and they did not agree with the past cancellations. Despite the fact that I am not a big supporter of this new law, it encouraged people to stand as candidates, because now in some districts you can win a seat with 9 or 10% of the vote. It wasn’t the case before. It encourages more people to run. But the major number of the seats are still predictable. There is a small number of seats where outsiders can win. It is also unpredictable to determine the preferential vote. We can say, more or less, how many votes every party will earn, but we can have surprises among the candidates. This is something new. Now at least, every candidate must have an electoral base on the ground.