Justin Salhani

January 12, 2013

Orthodox proposal splits Christian opinion





With parliament working to decide on an appropriate electoral law to use in elections later this year, an old proposal has reemerged from the dustbin to take headlines this past week. The Orthodox Gathering’s proposed draft law gained attention when the four major Christian parties agreed to back it in a meeting last Monday. While members of Christian parties support the draft law, other figures have directed criticism in its direction.

“This is not an ideal law,” said Dr. Sami Nader, political analyst and professor at Universite Saint Joseph. “This defies the principles of citizenship and modernity in terms of building a modern state.” Nader added however that the issue of “Christian frustration” must be dealt with. “Christians have 50 percent of the [parliament seats] but practically they have less than a third,” he said, referring to districts like south Lebanon or the Bekaa, where small Christian communities’ votes are drowned out due to much larger Muslim communities.

The Orthodox Gathering proposal would turn Lebanon into one large electoral district where each citizen votes only for members of their respective sect.

The draft law proposal, which was widely disregarded by Lebanese politicians in late 2011, was immediately rejected by President Michel Suleiman and drew criticism from the Future Movement and Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt. However, non-dismissive statements from Hezbollah and Amal leader Nabih Berri have ensured it is still up for discussion.

“We are in a country where there’s no separation between state and religion,” said Kesrouan MP Naamtallah Abi Nasr of the Free Patriotic Movement. “Therefore, we either have to separate between state and religion and consider the state to be secular or respect the current distribution [of seats] as stipulated by the Taif Accord,” he said, adding that he thought the proposal was the most convenient choice.

Zahle MP Joseph Maalouf of the Lebanese Forces said that his party acknowledged the law came with “possibilities of negative effects on segregation” between sects but maintained that Lebanon would be better off with the Orthodox Gathering proposal over the current 1960s law that was amended in Doha in 2008. Under the current law, Lebanon is divided into 28 districts where citizens vote based on which district they come from. Maalouf added that the proposed law for 50 smaller districts was the favored law for both the LF and Kataeb.

While Nader agrees that the current electoral law is flawed he believes that the Orthodox Gathering proposal could also be harmful for the country. “The law will widen the divide and cut bridges between communities,” he said. Nader added that former MP Elie Ferzli’s involvement in re-introducing the law seemed suspicious.

“When a traditional Syrian ally who is known for being anything but an advocate of Christian rights throws this into public debate, I have all the reason to believe he’s backed by the Syrian regime,” said Nader. Maalouf however said that Nabih Berri has “created a fallback position” over the last couple days by not showing unconditional support to the proposal.

Antoine Haddad of the Democratic Renewal Movement told NOW that the Orthodox Gathering proposal “entails a change in the whole political system.” He added that the proposal “increases extremist ideas and sectarian polarization, takes Lebanon decades backwards and threatens coexistence.”

According to Haddad, if passed into law, it would make minorities more paranoid and weaken citizens’ ability to hold their representatives accountable.

“It creates a strong inequality among voters today, whereby - according to one’s sect - a voter can send 34 MPs to parliament, while another can’t elect more than one,” Haddad said, adding that independents, cross-sectarian and reform-oriented parties would be at a disadvantage to sectarian parties since they would have to submit a full list of candidates for each sect.

In fact, Thursday saw a press conference at the residence of Batroun MP Butros Harb, an independent Christian in the March 14 political bloc, to denounce the Orthodox Gathering proposal.

Harb told reporters that the law would “destroy Lebanon’s unity” and “divide Christians into rival sectarian statelets.”

Future Movement released a statement on Tuesday also rejecting the proposed law. On Thursday, March 14 MPs' refusal to allow parliament to vote on the law led Baabda MP Alain Aoun of the FPM to suspend his participation in parliament’s electoral committee.

With opposition from independents, Future and the PSP, the law is currently predicted as an unlikely candidate to be adopted for elections later this year.

According to Nader, Christian leaders in Lebanon only supported this proposal due to “frustration” in the Christian community. “If they refuse it they will pay the price in terms of popularity within their community,” he said.

Follow the author on Twitter @JustinSalhani.