Lebanon

Lebanon: New electoral law designed to weaken patronage, sectarianism

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ALEY, 2 May 2007 (IRIN) - Coffin bearers shouted sectarian slogans as they bore the coffins of two young Sunnis - one a 12-year-old boy - who were kidnapped and killed last week in what investigators suspect was a revenge attack by brothers of a Shi'a killed in January's riots.

"Now that we've started with kidnapping and killing, who knows what will happen? Maybe another Iraq," said Mohammed Safieddine, a government employee. "We don't want any more killing, or war, or blood. We don't want any more tears."

At present, patronage and sectarianism are a way of life in Lebanon which is why, when Abu Nabil's mother needed surgery, he knew where to turn.

His local MP opens his home to petitioners twice a week and such demands are common. "I had a request, so as usual I went to the deputy. He was very responsive," said Abu Nabil in his clothes shop in the predominantly Druze town of Aley, a summer resort perched on the mountains above Beirut.

Aides helped with the hospital fees and, within weeks, an appointment with the surgeon. It's a system that suits all sides, in the view of Abu Nabil, who preferred not to give his full name. "The deputy serves us and we return the favour by voting for him."

But in a country where deadly sectarian riots, a five-month political standoff between a Sunni-dominated government and a Shi'a-led opposition, and the recent kidnap and killing of the two young Sunnis by suspected Shi'as, have raised fears of a descent into Iraq-style civil war, campaigners say only a reform of the electoral law can defuse such in-built political sectarianism.

"One of the very few ways out of the current Lebanese crisis is to negotiate a new electoral law," Khalil Gebara, head of the Lebanese Transparency Association, an NGO, told IRIN.

"We need to encourage competition to prevent the monopolisation of a sect by one leader. All the confessions except the Maronites (Christians) are monopolised by their leaders so any clash between two leaders can easily turn into sectarianism."

Strict sectarian quotas carve up power in Lebanon. Electoral districts allocate seats according to sect and voters must return to ancestral homes to cast ballots, encouraging the feudal-style domination of communities.

Central to proposed changes is the introduction of proportional representation to elect 51 MPs on cross-sectarian, regional lists across Lebanon's six governorates.

The remainder of parliament's 128 seats would go to local MPs elected by a simple majority. Voters would cast one ballot for the regional election, another for the local.

"People would have to run on issue-based programmes. That's what campaigning will be all about. It will be fierce, healthy competition," said Oussama Safa, head of the Lebanese Centre for Policy Studies, a think-tank that is also part of the campaign, together with the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections.

Polls drag on -- for five weeks in 2005 -- encouraging horse-trading and last-minute candidate lists. Under the new law, elections would take place on one day.

"Elections are a sort of carnival and go on for weeks. People hold campaign parties offering free food. There's no sense of being accountable," said Arda Ekmekji, dean of arts and sciences at Beirut's Haigazian University and one of 12 members of the independent commission, equally divided between Muslims and Christians, that drew up the new law and presented it in June 2006.

War between Israel and the armed wing of the political party Hezbollah last July thwarted a planned parliamentary debate on the law and lawmakers have not convened since.

Much of the draft law targets corruption.

The run-up to polls, Safa said, is a blitz of public works. State funds to fix roads before a vote are even dubbed "electoral asphalt". The law would cap campaign spending.

Most important, in Safa's view, is the establishment of an independent commission to monitor polls.

Voters could cast ballots where they live under the new law, which would also allow the hundreds of thousands of Lebanese passport holders who live abroad to vote.

The minimum voting age would drop to 18 from 21, and a 30 percent quota for women would be guaranteed on party lists.

Changing a centuries-old tradition of patronage politics will not be easy.

Most weekends in his castle in the eastern Chouf mountains, Walid Jumblatt, Druze leader and member of the ruling coalition, sits in the corner of a large reception room surrounded by aides.

One by one local men in traditional sirwal baggy trousers and skull caps take their place next to him. "Pillar of the sky," murmurs one, "my son needs to travel abroad to work."

Jumblatt nods to an aide in charge of helping with visas and letters of recommendation. Another aide guards a briefcase of dollar bills. Hospital and school fees, mediation in squabbles, new roads, landlord trouble - any petition can land at the feet of the zaim, or strongman leader.

In nearby Aley, Mohammed al-Jurdi, the mukhtar, or local official, expects little support in the mountains for relinquishing what he describes as "social services, aside from politics".

"If someone does me a service, I'll vote for him. If he doesn't, I'll go to someone else. Why else would you choose an MP?"

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