Lebanon’s Government Should Lay the Groundwork for Fairer Representation and Accountability

By Paul Salem | Vice President for Policy Analysis, Research & Programs - The Middle East Institute | Jan 11, 2017
Lebanon’s Government Should Lay the Groundwork for Fairer Representation and Accountability

The Lebanese parliamentary electoral system is the worst in the world. It ensures that a small sectarian oligarchy can monopolize control of parliament and state power, and it sets impossible obstacles to the rise of new political parties and alternative leadership. The necessary remedy is to introduce proportional representation, either through the mixed system proposed by the National Electoral Law Commission headed by Fouad Boutros in 2006, or through other variations proposed by a number of groups since then. The oligarchy will resist this threat to its dominance, but there is no political path forward without this reform.

Lebanon has one central government and about 1,000 local municipal councils. What is missing in Lebanon, but present in most other developed republics, is decentralized governance at the regional level. In the case of Lebanon, this would most logically be at the qada level.  

The absence of effective administrative decentralization in Lebanon is not a coincidence. The oligarchy resisted efforts to hold municipal elections after the civil war and it took a national civil society campaign—Baladi, Baldati, Baladiyyati in 1997—to force the parliament and government to relent. The country’s elite is especially loathe to allow elected and empowered councils and governors at the qada level; they would compete with oligarchs for political power and control of resources. But there is no way to unleash the potential for regional development and growth without allowing and empowering citizens and administrations at the regional qada level.

A complete administrative decentralization draft law prepared during president Michel Suleiman’s term and under the leadership of former Interior Minister Ziyad Baroud already exists; all it needs is passage into law and executive implementation.

However, all attempts at development or good governance will be utterly futile if we don’t confront and beat back the cancerous cartel of corruption. In many countries corruption is a fact of life; in Lebanon it is a way of life. If the oligarchy will resist the first and second reforms mentioned above, they will fight to the death to maintain their kleptocracy.

Many other countries have faced the challenge of fighting corruption. Some have succeeded.  We must learn from their experience.

First, it will require national awareness that fighting the scourge of corruption is as urgent a national priority as maintaining our national security, educating our children, and keeping our economy afloat. Second, it will require new legislation that sharply defines the various crimes and offenses of corruption and their strong punishments and the powers of enforcement against them. Third, it will require the establishment of an independent and empowered national anti-corruption institution with the freedom, authority, and information-gathering resources to investigate all forms of corruption in any public office from the presidency on down. Fourth, it will require the strengthening of the judicial branch and the empowerment of particular courts and judges to focus on public corruption cases. Finally, it will require the establishment of a special police force, under judicial authority, to arrest corrupt officials, of whatever rank.

Some will say that fighting corruption is a dream; so is the dream of building a better Lebanon.  The two dreams will have to unfold together.

Here, we have suggested three reforms to bolster representation, decentralization, and the fight against corruption. That is not to say these are the only necessary ones, but rather that these key reforms can lead to a positive transformation of governance in our small republic. I suggest them without high hopes that the current ruling oligarchy will adopt or implement any of them. Rather, I wish to point out that the road to reform might be difficult to achieve—given the skewed distribution of power in our society—but it is clear. The more we are certain about the steps that will take us forward, the more we can mobilize citizens and civil society to bring about the changes that our country so urgently needs.