Lebanon’s political system:  An outline


Lebanon’s political system has a uniquely confessional character, which has its origin in the National Pact of 1943.  Under this unwritten Pact, the President of the Republic must be a Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim and the President (Speaker) of the Parliament a Shiite Muslim.


What is more, 50% of the 128 seats in the Parliament are allocated to Christians, and 50% to Muslims, and these allocations are further sub-divided for Christian and Muslim sects.  In total, seats are allocated to each of 18 sects.  Nationally, the 64 Christian seats are allocated as follows: Maronite 34, Greek Orthodox 14, Greek Catholic 8, Armenian Orthodox 5, Armenian Catholic 1, Protestant 1 and Others 1; and the 64 Muslim seats are allocated as follows: Sunni 27, Shiite 27, Druze 8 and Alawite 2.


So, in total Christians have 50% of the seats, and the Sunni and Shiite communities just over 20% each.


There was no provision in the National Pact for altering these allocations to reflect demographic changes.  And there is still none today.  These allocations may have corresponded to the proportion of each sect in the electorate at one time, but they certainly don’t today.  But it’s impossible to say with any precision what they should be, since there hasn’t been a national census since 1932.  This is a very sensitive issue within Lebanon, an issue that has the potential to trigger civil conflict.


The Ta’if Accord of 1989 (see, for example, [1]) which laid the basis for ending the civil war, declared that “abolishing political sectarianism is a fundamental national objective” and specified that a national council be established to work out a phased plan to bring about its abolition.  This “fundamental national objective” was written into the Lebanese Constitution (in Article 95) but it doesn’t seem to have progressed beyond that.


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In 1932, Christians as a whole were in a majority, and they were originally allocated 55% of the seats.  This was reduced to 50% by the Ta’if Accord in 1989.  Today, it is generally believed that the Christian population is less than 40%.


On the other hand, it is generally believed that the Shiites are substantially underrepresented, with 27 out of the 128 seats, that is, a little over 20% of the seats in the Lebanese Parliament.  Some people believe that they are more numerous than Christians.  There is little doubt that to match their share of the electorate they should have at least a third, and perhaps as much as 40%, of the seats.


In the election in May-June 2005, Hezbollah won 14 out of the 27 Shiite seats.  But, if Shiites had had their proper allocation, Hezbollah might have had 25 or 30 seats, and together with its Shiite allies might have upwards of 50 seats, that is, well over a third of the total number of seats in Parliament.


This is very important because of two provisions of the Lebanese Constitution [2].  First, Article 95(3)(a) requires that:


“The confessional groups are to be represented in a just and equitable fashion in the formation of the Cabinet.”


So, if Shiites had their due representation in Parliament, then they would be constitutionally entitled to over a third of the Ministries in the Government.


This is crucial because Article 65(5) says:


“The Council of Ministers … makes its decisions by consensus. If that is not possible, it makes its decisions by vote of the majority of attending members. Basic national issues require the approval of two thirds of the members of the Council named in the Decree forming the Cabinet. Basic national issues are considered the following:-


The amendment of the constitution, the declaration of a state of emergency and its termination, war and peace, general mobilization, international agreements and treaties, the annual government budget, comprehensive and longterm development projects, the appointment of Grade One government employees and their equivalents, the review of the administrative map, the dissolution of the Chamber of Deputies, electoral laws, nationality laws, personal status laws, and the dismissal of Ministers.”


So, the Council of Minister is constitutionally obliged to make its decisions by consensus, if possible, but, failing that, decisions on important issues such as these require a two-thirds majority of the whole Council, not just the Ministers present.  So, if over a third of Ministers do not support a proposal on such issues, it falls.


In other words, if Shiites had their due representation in Parliament, and this was properly reflected in the Council of Ministers, then, assuming they acted as a bloc, they would be in a position to block proposals on “basic national issues” that were not to their liking.


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Since November 2006, Hezbollah, and its Shiite and Christian allies, have been seeking a National Unity Government in which together they would have a blocking third.  In reality, if Shiites has the representation their numbers deserve within the Lebanese political system, they would have a blocking third as of right.



David Morrison

Labour & Trade Union Review

28 June 2007


[1]  www.monde-diplomatique.fr/cahier/proche-orient/region-liban-taef-en

[2]  www.oefre.unibe.ch/law/icl/le00000_.html