Saturday, February 26, 2005

Lebanese politics

How dry can you get?
Politics is pretty dry as a topic. Most people have no interest in their own politics, much less politics from the other side of the world. (Oddly enough, everyone rises to the occasion when election time rolls around, and you would think that the streets were swarming with experts. All you have to do to dispell that idea is just listen to the ignorance that spews forth until the flash catches the popular attention. But I digress...)

The Head Heeb is doing due diligence to learn about Lebanese politics.
All we learn from the news is that a bunch of kids are engaged in some kind of "Chechnya-style protest" against Syrian influence. Knowlege of the region is about as complete for most Americans as the geography of Antarctica, but since there is a war on just across the fence, and since Israel is just across the fence, there is no sense of embarrassment about commenting, either dismissing events there as unimportant or reducing them to an idea about the size of an aspirin. Sorry 'bout that, but the place is about as complicated as it gets from a political point of view.

And here it is again, that word "consociational."

The central aspect of the Lebanese political system (other than Syrian influence, which will be discussed later) is a consociational distribution of power among religious groups that dates from the French Mandatory period. The Lebanese system has a party-political as well as a confessional axis, and party allegiances sometimes cut across religious lines - two of the Hizbullah delegates in the current National Assembly are Christian - but as Hassan Khrayem points out, the party axis is very much the weaker of the two. Less than a third of the parliament elected in 2000 formally belongs to a political party, and while some of the independent MPs are allied with organized factions, many others belong to one-person or family-based groupings. In the absence of a strong party system, the sectarian divisions are the bases of power - which, in a self-fulfilling process, has encouraged the formation of parties with strong sectarian and weak ideological foundations.

The religious divisions are also the ones that have caused wars. At independence, the National Pact of 1943 apportioned parliamentary seats and government portfolios at a 6 to 5 ratio between Christians and Muslims, which reflected the country's demographic balance under the census of 1932. During the succeeding generation, however, this arrangement became steadily less equitable as the Muslim population began to outnumber the Christians. The parties' failure to agree on a reapportionment was one of the driving forces behind the outbreak of the civil war in 1975 (map here), which lasted more than a decade, devastated the country and resulted in intervention by Syria and Israel. In 1989, the civil war was brought to an end under Syrian sponsorship by the National Reconciliation Accord, commonly known as the Taif Accord, which provided for an even distribution of seats between Christians and Muslims, divided the three top political positions among Maronites, Sunnis and Shi'ites, and cast Syria as the guarantor of the Lebanese political system. The first postwar election in 1992 was held under the Taif system, as have the subsequent elections of 1996 and 2000.

The Lebanese consociational system, both under Taif and before, isn't a simple Muslim-Christian division; instead, both the Christian and Muslim allotments are subdivided among individual sects. The 64 Muslim seats, for instance, are divided into 27 each for Shi'ites and Sunnis, eight for the Druze population and two for the Alawites. Of the 64 Christian seats, 34 are reserved for Maronites, 14 for the Greek Orthodox community, eight for Greek Catholics, six for Armenians, one for Protestants and one for everyone else. (The Armenian seats are distributed five for the Orthodox and one for the Catholic.)

Got that?
That's only the beginning, from Part I of a series in progress.
Unlike most places, the comments thread is also civil and instructive. And unlike most bloggers, Jonathan Edelstein takes time to interact and respond to comments, much like speakers do in a question-and-answer period after a talk.

Part II is up today. I plan to follow along and learn something. At least if I say something about Lebanon - and you can be sure that in the days to come there will be good many words written and spoken about Lebanon - I won't have to be too embarrassed if I say something that strikes an informed listener as ignorant.


From the comments thread of Part Two, a discussion of various options for a "reformed consociational system." Jonathan is making an inquiry of one "Tony," whose comments carry some credibility.

What do you think a reformed consociational system would look like? I can think of several possibilities:

1. Redesign Taif: continue the sectarian apportionment system in parliament, but with some reforms (larger or nationwide electoral districts, proportional representation, periodic reapportionment with failsafes, rotation of top jobs, etc.) This could become easier if cross-sectarian alliances become the norm.

2. Reinvent Malaysia: have political competition take place between umbrella coalitions of parties (representing the "right" and "left" or other applicable cleavage) with each coalition apportioning seats along consociational lines. What you say above about political gatherings could potentially be the nucleus of a Malaysia-type system.

3. Reinvent Belgium: have one-man-one-vote at the national level but devolve power simultaneously to the regions (where local ethnic/confessional majorities can have influence) and to cross-regional authorities representing the various confessional communities. I'm not sure if there's a constituency for any kind of federalism in Lebanon, but if a federal system does come on the table, the Ottoman millet legacy might make Belgian dual federalism plausible. (Belgian constitution here).

4. Reinvent the United States: have a bicameral legislature with a non-consociational lower house and a consociational upper house. I'm not sure if there's a constituency for this either; it would work best in conjunction with decentralization, but it might also work without.

5. Reinvent Fiji: have a unicameral parliament with a certain number of consociational seats, a certain number of "open" seats and a constitutionally mandated distribution of cabinet posts. This might actually come under the "redesign Taif" category, although it would be a major redesign.

Combinations of one or another might also happen. Anything else?

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