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    Government Formation: Accept the Rules

    Those that advocate consensus government in Lebanon, that is one of national unity, fail to understand the correlative, some would even argue causative, relationship between the electoral system and government formation. Put simply, if you want national-unity government in Lebanon, change the electoral system to one of proportional representation.  

    Government in a democracy, whether in a presidential or parliamentary system, is predicated on the result of its election. The type of electoral formula used guides the formation of government, with a majoritarian, winner take-all system leading to a majority government and a proportional representation formula engendering a more inclusive, coalition government. The past parliamentary elections in Lebanon were held under a bloc vote majoritarian system. In a bloc vote system, voters cast ballots for as many seats allocated to that district, resulting in candidates garnering the highest number of votes being elected. Such winner-take-all-formulas are not conducive to creating consensus governments that include the losers because the system creates an expected outcome: a majority government. In systems based on majoritarianism, voters cast ballots knowing that if their side wins, it will form a government of their choosing. In proportional systems, voters do not expect such an outcome; rather, government formation is done through negotiation following the election.  

    In Lebanon’s case, the winning majority, March 14, should be able allowed to form a government that only includes parties from the winning coalition as long as all sects are represented. That is, a majority government. Yet in Lebanon, where always the most basic of logics gets convoluted, despite losing the election governed by winner-take-all rules, the opposition continues to demand a national unity government with veto power resting outside of March 14’s domain. Furthermore it has deemed itself the true, popular majority in an attempt to undermine March 14’s parliamentary majority and, consequently, the validity of the electoral law.

    The opposition’s argument, broken down to the most basic, is that because they won the popular vote – and they did indeed receive more votes overall than March 14 – it’s only natural for them to have a share in the government. There is nothing wrong or flawed with the argument had the agreed-upon rules been based on proportional representation, which is more inclined to create a cabinet that includes all parties. But they were not. How, then, can a national unity government be formed when the means to achieve government formation are based on majoritarianism? Under majority rules, such a concept is anathema.  

    This ultimately leads to a debate to what system is best for Lebanon. Those that espouse an election law rooted in proportional representation note that the system is more fair as all groups are represented in parliament proportional to the number of votes they received. This system is usually preferred for countries with multiple confessions or ethnicities, like Lebanon, since it alone can guarantee that all groups, or parties that represent those groups, will be represented in Parliament and the Cabinet.  

    Proportional representation’s penchant to produce multi-party ruling coalitions, while more equitable, is also a drawback since these governments are usually weak and ineffectual when too many parties, and thus opinions, are included. The larger the number of parties and the more disparate their political views, the feebler that government will be. On the other hand, those that back majority systems like to highlight the stability and accountability they produce: Governments are much less tenuous and the people are able to identify who’s responsible for government action.

    The paradox of Lebanon is that despite a majority system, neither a stable government nor clear accountability exists.  Following March 14’s parliamentary victory in 2005, five opposition ministers were included in the government. The result precipitated government gridlock and ultimately the start of the protracted political imbroglio that culminated with the Doha agreement, which called for an expanded national unity government to serve as a transitional government. If five opposition ministers were able to impede government decision-making and plunge the country into a precarious political crisis, what then should the Lebanese expect from a government that includes 10? 

    Lebanon’s political system is in urgent need of reform. Politicians should start by agreeing on an equitable electoral law – whether based in proportionality, majoritarianism, or a mixture of the two – and respect the outcomes that these systems produce on government formation. Only then can Lebanese know what to expect from future parliamentary majorities, oppositions and their government.

    Osama Gharizi
    The Daily Star
    30.10.2009

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