“The Parliamentary Electoral Legal Framework” Conference
Under the patronage of His Excellency Nabih Berri, speaker of the Parliament, the Ministry of Interior and Municipalities and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) organized a conference yesterday, on Wednesday the 30th of November 2016, entitled “Legal Framework for Parliamentary Elections” at Phoenicia Hotel, Beirut. The conference was attended by a large number of MPs, ministers, ambassadors, representatives of diplomatic delegations, experts and representatives of the media and civil society.
The first speaker in the opening ceremony was His Excellency the Minister of Interior Mr. Nohad El Machnouk, who confirmed that no consistent electoral law can be adopted to manage the political process without a final agreement between the Lebanese people and without the new political elite of the Lebanese parties and the civil society succeeding in changing the framework of the political process that has been the same for the past decades. The Minister said that the expression “legal framework” used in the ongoing debate on the electoral law goes beyond the elections mechanism and democratic process itself. Those who want to adopt small districts are acting based on calculations to protect their positions and guarantee their survival, or so it’s believed. The same applies for those advocating for the single district or the proportional representation system. Every party is expressing their thoughts as if they are representing references in international democracy while that is not the case. For example, the proportional representation system promoted as the best electoral system is actually not, and there are experts participating in this conference who are more familiar with the ongoing debate on proportional representation systems between those who defend it and countries around the world who relinquished this type of representation in their laws and these were some of the most democratic countries in the world”. The minister concluded his intervention by expressing his concern that the deadline for next spring’s elections is near and that it will take place under the current electoral law, confirming that the Ministry is ready for this. However any new law that may be adopted will require more time to ensure preparedness of the electoral management body and the citizens.
Ambassador Sigrid Kaag, United Nations Special Coordinator for Lebanon made the second intervention emphasizing on the importance of implementing four basic standards in any democratic and modern electoral law. “The first is a higher level of participation to the electoral process, such as what are the ways to ensure more participation of social components namely women and youth in the political process? Enhancing participation should remain a serious challenge for any new electoral law on the table. In fact, the more we give citizens the chance to choose their representatives the more we steer them away from resorting to violence, and the more we give youth and women – who account for more than half of the population – the opportunity to be represented in parliament, the more we contribute to concretizing the different aspirations of our societies and fulfilling their potential. The third main element is respecting elections deadlines. This enhances citizens’ trust in democratic institutions but also shows that political leaders respect the laws. The fourth element is an electoral law and system that must be inclusive, fair and including reforms to protect the secrecy of the vote, such as using pre-printed ballots. Measures should also be taken to ensure ease of access for persons with disabilities and adopt gender quotas”. Kaag wondered how a gender quota could be adopted in a majority system like the existing one. The ambassador ended with a message to the Lebanese saying that they were a model in the region, whether they wanted it or not, so they should not let its people down.
The head of the EU delegation to Lebanon, H.E. ambassador Christina Lassen mentioned that no electoral system was absolutely better than other systems but rather that there were general international standards to be respected in any electoral system such as pre-printed ballots, vote weighing, women representation and encouraging women’s participation as a voter and candidate and establishing a supervisory commission on the electoral campaign.
Representing H.E. Speaker Berri, MP Samir Al Jisr thanked the international organizations and namely the United Nations and the European Union for strengthening the cooperation and providing support with, and to, the Lebanese parliamentary institutions. Al Jisr stated that if setting electoral districts and adopting a specific electoral system were controversial matters, there are other reforms that should not be a cause for debate, such as overseeing the electoral process by an independent entity. Such matters are agreed upon in principle but not always in practice. The same applies for controlling electoral media and publicity, spending, funding and the use of influence in elections. The other pressing issue is that of women participation to the electoral process. According to Al Jisr, this fact is incomprehensible in Lebanese politics since women are largely represented in public and private administrations, and in the judiciary sector to the point where some may see that women form a large majority in some sectors such as education.
The opening ceremony was followed by the first session where draft electoral laws currently under review by parliamentary committees were presented along with the opinions of the different parliamentary blocs. The session, that was moderated by MP Georges Adwan, coordinator of the parliamentary drafting committee of the electoral law, also tackled ways to encourage women’s participation to electoral processes. The panelists were MPs Ali Hassan Khalil, Ahmad Fatfat, Alain Aoun, Ali Fayyad, and Marwan Hamade along with Ms. Dalia Zakhiri, expert at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance IDEA who talked about the international and comparative experience to increase women representation, and Dr. Fadia Kiwan, representative of the National Commission for Lebanese Women who pointed out the importance of women’s participation in the drafting of the electoral law.
The second session was entitled “Elections Management and Other Reforms” and was moderated by Ms. Fatima Fakhreddine, project manager of the UNDP parliamentary project. Panelists included former Minister Ziad Baroud who presented reforms introduced by the draft version of the “Independent National Commission for the Electoral Law” (Minister Boutros Committee), in addition to the hybrid system, combining between proportional and majority systems, which brings according to Baroud the best of both worlds. He was followed by Ms. Faten Younis, Director General of political affairs and refugees at the Ministry of Interior and Municipalities who briefed the audience on the administrative procedures taken by the Ministry during the last municipal elections and obstacles faced. She also mentioned the preparations of the Ministry for the upcoming parliamentary elections showing a short movie prepared by the Ministry as a draft amendment to the Law in order to facilitate the voting process for persons with disabilities. Mr. Dan Radulescu, project manager of the UNDP Lebanese Elections Assistance Project, presented the different phases of technical assistance provided by the project to the Ministry of Interior and Municipalities during the last municipal elections and assured that the project will continue to provide this support in the upcoming parliamentary elections. He also expressed the willingness of UNDP to support any new procedures that may be stipulated in any new electoral law or amendments. Finally, Ms. Sylvana Lakkis, president of the Lebanese Physical Handicapped Union (LPHU) emphasized on the rights of the people with disabilities to access the ballot box and highlighted the necessity of including such rights in the new electoral law while criticizing the way officials were dealing with these rights.
The third session entitled “Electoral Monitoring and Electoral Supervisory Bodies” was moderated by MP Serge Torsarkissian with panelists including Dr. Khalil Jebara consultant of the Minister of Interior and Municipalities and former member of the supervisory commission on the electoral campaign. In his intervention, Dr. Jebara shared his experience in supervising electoral campaigns during the 2009 elections and the main gaps and obstacles they had to face. According to him, the 2009 experience was a pioneering one despite all its deficiencies when compared to the 2016 campaign marked with chaotic media coverage. He concluded his intervention by focusing on the importance of institutionalizing the commission and ensuring continuity of its staff instead of debating its independence. From his end, Mr. Samir Gharbawi, representative from the EU delegation to Lebanon presented different mechanisms for monitoring elections, international electoral supervision standards and different ways of forming monitoring commissions. He also mentioned reports of the EU in that regard while highlighting some of the recommendations suggested. The Executive Director of the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections (LADE) Ms. Yara Nassar criticized the electoral management for not being strict on holding elections at their due dates and how this causes instability. She also criticized current electoral laws and their negative interpretation by the Ministry. She further demanded serious measures to be taken to remedy these many gaps and namely establishing an electoral management body that is totally independent from the Ministry to guarantee impartiality. She finally enumerated some violations recorded during the last municipal elections.
During the closing session, Dr. Khalil Jebara, who represented the Minister of Interior and Municipalities, thanked in his intervention UNDP for its continuous support namely through the Lebanese Elections Assistance Project. He reminded the audience that the Ministry was ready to hold the upcoming elections in due time and to ensure the voting of non-residents. Then, Deputy UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon, UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative, Mr. Philippe Lazzarini, summarized in his intervention the main debates of the day, emphasizing the importance of holding elections at their due time and of including serious reforms in the law such as higher participation of women and youth and guaranteeing voting secrecy… Finally he reminded the audience of the impartiality of the UNDP and its continued support to the decisions that the Lebanese agree upon. He also said that the UNDP along with the EU will continue providing support to hold free and fair elections.