Redesigning Lebanon's Consociational Confessional Democracy

Lebanon has adopted the consociational confessional framework of democracy due to its complex multi-religious sectarian population. These electoral laws were created under French mandate in 1926 and for the most part, have endured to this day as the current electoral system.

This consociational framework of democracy was subject to severe ruptures of internal instability until it finally collapsed in 1975 with the outbreak of the civil war. The model was adjusted and recalibrated by incorporating new, demanding elites and by expanding the grand coalition, which consisted mainly of Sunnis in the Taif Agreement and Shiites in the Doha Agreement.

This arrangement was to be temporary, as mentioned in the 1943 National Charter, and the Taif Agreement also mentions that a national committee was to be formed to investigate sectarianism and that the distribution of top positions was temporarily allowed on the basis of sectarian lines.

Our ideal democratic institution would be a secular, numerical democracy, but that has not been possible because of sectarianism and religious fanaticism. The real problem is not consocialism per se, but the rigid and extreme consocialism practised here. So before we go about redesigning Lebanon's Consociational Confessional Democracy we need to know what are the frailties of the existing design.

The Frailties of Lebanese Democracy: Outcomes and Limits of the Confessional Framework

We need to understand the design flaws of institutions so that we can avoid such institutional deadlocks as in the past and the looting of the country by the elites. Here I summarise the points from Natalia Calfat's brilliant paper - The Frailties of Lebanese Democracy: Outcomes and Limits of the Confessional Framework with some additional insights.

The author has not suggested how to fix these flaws in the current framework but has provided insights into why consociationalism is not considered a beneficial framework despite the international literature supporting it. The author points out that the new, "improved" postwar consociational system does not seem to have achieved its goal of creating endogenous democratic stability for Lebanon.

The Faults in our consociational confessional Democratic Framework

The second part of the paper analyses two internal dimensions that threaten the success of the democratic experience in Lebanon:

  1. The confessional pre-attribution of seats.
  2. The resulting representative distortions.

Seats are allocated along confessional lines by the French Mandate of 1926. This means that Lebanese do not vote where they live, but in the districts where their family was registered in the 1930s. This creates electoral voids where a candidate, despite his or her voting power, cannot be elected because the seats have already been allocated to other sects.

This system has led to a distortion of representation as the needs of the residents of the neighbourhood are not represented, resulting in the inability of the administration to meet the needs of public service. An example of this is the "You Stink" protest campaign, which was organised independently of the confessional communities.

In analysing the 2009 elections, it was found that Lebanon had an 11% deviation from proportionality, twice the global average. This has led to the problem that some constituencies (such as Akkar, Dinniyeh-Minnieh, Zgharta, Tyre, Nabatiyeh and Bint Jbeil) are underrepresented, while others are overrepresented (such as Kesrwan, Koura, Beirute I and Jezzine). These small distortions in representation, which add up across the country, lead to corruption and institutional deadlocks that result in a weak state.

Nations Fail When Institutions Fail

Despite all efforts at pluralism, we have ended up with a rigid framework that solidifies communal ties and reinforces the electoral power of regional elites. This means that local elites are constantly bargaining for and eroding more power in institutions. These sectarian elites become the sole representatives of their communities, providing jobs, services and security. Read my earlier blog post on clientelism here

Authors Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson conclude in their book When Nations Fail that underdevelopment is caused by institutions in which elites deliberately plunder their people and impoverish them.

New Electoral Law based on Proportional voting

It is not that we have not tried to make our democracy more representative and pluralistic. There have been several attempts in the past, but each time the bill was blocked by a sect.

One of the most common reasons why these bills have not been passed is that our political elites do not want a change of power. They will resist any attempt to correct the flaws which enable their hegemony in patronage relations.

The Lebanese government had passed a bill based on the principle of proportionality and the division of Lebanon into thirteen electoral districts. But the new law was not submitted to parliament for approval because Jumblatt and the Future Movement had refused to support it.

Subsequently, a new electoral law was passed in 2018 but it has many flaws too which is discussed here.

Redesigning of Lebanon's Consociational Confessional Democracy

However, credit needs to be given to the current consociational confessional framework for successfully preventing another civil war. Thirty-nine countries that experienced a civil war between 1970 and 2000 experienced civil war again between 2000 and 2011. Reference - Why Nations Fail

Pluralistic institutions promote development. They create a virtual cycle of growth, development and prosperity for citizens. But if the institutional framework is not well designed, elites get control over extractive institutions.

The crisis in Lebanon is a crisis in the moral ethics of our elites. There are socio-cultural factors for the current corrupt behaviour of our elites. I believe we need to find a truly Lebanese solution to our democratic crisis by understanding the roots of our socio-cultural ethos and then re-design our democratic institutional framework.

Redesigning Lebanon's Consociational Confessional Democracy

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