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    Electoral reform & the Mikati government: don’t get too excited

    Prime Minister Najib Mikati today announced on his official Facebook page that one of the priorities of the new Lebanese government is to launch a national initiative aimed at coming up with a new electoral law which will guarantee fair and just political representation. The initiative will apparently focus on a “deep study” of electoral reforms already put forward, particularly proportional representation. Mikati pledges that the new electoral law will be ready a year before the 2013 elections and that the government will work on improving its ties with Lebanese expatriates, and facilitate overseas voting.

    On the surface this is a positive sign from Mikati, but those of us who have been involved for a long time in the electoral reform movement have learnt to be skeptical when politicians pronounce apparently sincere intentions on reforming our archaic electoral system. First of all, the statement is typically vague. For example, an initiative which will study electoral reforms already put forward is hardly a guarantee that important reforms such as tightened campaign finance regulation will be supported by this government; it just means that they will be discussed. Secondly, it is difficult to believe that the parties within the March 8 coalition will give up the comforts of the majoritarian election system, with its multi-member districts and winner takes all rationale, for the uncertainties of proportional representation. Lebanese political parties in general like to secure the election result in advance in as many districts as possible by negotiating on seats, and the March 8 coalition whose primary aim is to win the elections in 2013 (ignore the Mikati nice guy image and listen instead to Michel Aoun to gauge the government’s true intentions), will most likely choose to either stick with the same electoral system or come up with one more favourable to them. It’s also difficult to believe that this government will once and for all pass what is one of the the most crucial reforms of all: the pre-printed ballot paper distributed to voters inside polling stations (instead of the current system where voters mostly take ballot papers from party campaign machines, thus seriously diminishing the secrecy of the vote).

    Prime Minister Mikati has requested several times that we give this government a chance to prove that it’s serious about passing many reforms that will improve citizens’ lives. He has to excuse our deep skepticism; the electoral reform movement in Lebanon has since 1996 held countless workshops with political parties and MPs imploring them again and again to endorse electoral reforms that will improve democracy in Lebanon. In 2005, the first Siniora government set up a commission headed by former minister Fouad Boutros which received hundreds of electoral law proposals (one of which was presented by Mikati himself) before it presented its final draft to the cabinet. The Civil Campaign for Electoral Reform, a coalition of over 50 civil society organisations, has already produced a vast amount of information on electoral reforms.  Yet, so far little progress has been made, not just in terms of reforms, but in terms of a real political will to improve democratic practices. Apart from the Democratic Renewal Movement and a few other parties such as the Democratic Left Movement, most political parties have never endorsed electoral reforms other than ‘in principle’. Yet another ‘initiative’ will do little to change their minds. Thus what is required is sustained pressure on this initiative to be transparent in its actions (e.g. why certain reforms are rejected) and for the starting point to be Ziyad Baroud’s draft electoral law which represents a culmination of over 15 years of civil society effort to reform Lebanon’s electoral system.

    The work on electoral reform has already been done, all it needs is political will – do Mikati and his allies have it?

    Doreen KHOURY

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