The most important fact about Lebanese politics

Shiites are under-represented


The most important fact about Lebanese politics, which the Western media rarely tell us, is that the Shiite community is under-represented within the Lebanese political system.


Bush and Blair constantly talk about defending democracy in Lebanon.  But, if they were seriously concerned about democracy there, they would be demanding more seats in the Lebanese Parliament for Hezbollah.  And a greater share for it in the Lebanese government.


The Shiite community, which is Hezbollah’s electoral base, is under-represented in the Lebanese Parliament - perhaps grossly under-represented - and if the Shiite community were fairly represented it is odds on that Hezbollah, and its Shiite allies, would both have many more seats - perhaps double the number of seats.


Needless to say, the champions of democracy in Washington and London keep quiet about this unfairness.  They keep quiet about it because if it was corrected the Parliament and Government of Lebanon less willing to do their bidding.  If the boot was on the other foot - if the unfairness operated to reduce Western influence in the Parliament and Government of Lebanon - it is racing certainty that we would never hear the end of it.


Confessional system

The Shiite under-representation has come about through the unique confessional nature of the Lebanese political system.  This 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.


The Ta’if Accord in 1989, 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.


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.


Great significance

The latter is of great significance because of two features of Lebanon’s written constitution.


First, Article 95(3) of the constitution [1] requires each confessional group to be represented “in a just and equitable fashion in the formation of the Cabinet”.  So, if Shiites were fairly represented in Parliament, they would be entitled to over a third of the Ministries in the Cabinet.


This is important because of Article 65(5) of the constitution.  This states that the Cabinet should, if possible, make its decisions by consensus but, failing that, decisions on important issues require a two-thirds majority of the whole Cabinet, not just the Ministers present.  Such issues include “the amendment of the constitution”, “the declaration of a state of emergency and its termination”, “war and peace”, “international agreements and treaties”, and “the annual government budget”.  So, if over a third of Ministers do not support a proposal on such issues, it falls. 


In other words, if Shiites had fair representation in Parliament, then, most likely, Hezbollah and its Shiite allies would be in a position to block any government decision on important issues that wasn’t to their liking.


Government of national unity

This is central to understanding what is going on at the moment in Beirut.  Bush and Blair tell us, and the media dutifully repeat, that Hezbollah is trying to overthrow the democratically elected Lebanese Government, that democracy is under threat from terrorism in Lebanon.


It’s not quite like that.  First, as I have pointed out, neither the Parliament, nor the Cabinet reflect fairly the size of Shiite population today.  Second, Hezbollah is nor seeking to overthrow the present government under Prime Minister, Fouad Siniora.  Nor is it seeking a bigger share of the Cabinet for itself, or for its fellow Shiites, or for any pro-Syrian group.


On the contrary, it is seeking to create a government of national unity, with Fouad Siniora continuing as Prime Minister, by including in the government the only bloc in the Parliament that isn’t currently included.  This is not an unreasonable demand in the context of Lebanon, where inclusive government taking decisions by consensus is the ideal prescribed in the constitution.


The only bloc currently not included is the one led by Michel Aoun’s Christian Free Patriotic Movement.  Aoun is the one Lebanese politician who has never been pro-Syrian - he waged war against Syrian occupation in 1989, lost and retired to France, returning in 2005, when Syria withdrew its remaining troops.  Hezbollah entered into a “memorandum of understanding” with Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement in February 2006, an alliance that survived Israel’s assault on Lebanon last summer.  Remember this is an alliance between Shiites and Christians, which, to the best of my knowledge, hasn’t happened in this form in Lebanon before.


Hezbollah and Aoun are seeking to get over a third of the Ministries for themselves and their allies, in order to be in a position to rein in the pro-Western attitudes of the present Government.  Since altogether they have 56 out of the 128 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, that is, over 40%, it is not unreasonable that together they should have a blocking third in a government of national unity, but Siniora and his allies have refused.


Because of this, the 5 Shiite Ministers resigned from the Government on 11 November 2006, followed two days later by a Christian Minister.  Another Christian Minister, Pierre Gemayel, was assassinated on 21 November 2006.


The mass demonstrations that are now going on outside the Prime Minister’s office in Beirut are the next step in the campaign by Hezbollah and its Shiite and Christian allies to persuade Siniora and his allies to change their mind.


With one or two exceptions, the media here have portrayed the demonstrations as being entirely Hezbollah, Hezbollah acting in an undemocratic manner.  But, it is much more than Hezbollah.  It also includes Hezbollah’s Shiite allies, Amal.  And, most significantly, it includes the Christian Free Patriotic Movement.  The Orange flags in the demonstrations are carried by supporters of the Free Patriotic Movement.


David Morrison

26 December 2006

Labour & Trade Union Review