Elias Muhanna writes: Lebanon’s peculiar brand of democracy, dysfunctional and widely unpopular, is a perennial source of national vexation, debated over Sunday lunches and in the press.
Since the Taif agreement of 1989, which helped end the civil war, half of Parliament has been reserved for Christians, the other half for Muslims, with each half distributed among 11 of Lebanon’s 18 officially recognized sects (Maronite, Greek Orthodox, Protestant, Sunni, Shiite, Druze, Alawite, etc). Each of Parliament’s (pdf) 128 seats is sect-specific: only members of that sect can run for it. (Voters, however, can cast their ballot for every seat in their district regardless of their own religious affiliation.) The president must be a Maronite, the prime minister a Sunni and the speaker of Parliament a Shiite. Hundreds of bureaucratic appointments are also subject to sectarian apportionment under the Constitution.
The imposition of religious representativeness in politics is a scourge. In the best of circumstances, it is vulnerable to the demagoguery of religious leaders; in the worst, it breeds civil violence and paralyzes the government. But others fear that a more open system would not provide the guarantees of power-sharing among religious minorities that the current model entails.
In recent months, the focus of these long-standing divergences has centered on the intricacies of Lebanon’s electoral law. The next parliamentary elections are less than a year and a half away, and a loose coalition of civil society groups, independent politicians and Lebanon’s president – the former army general Michel Suleiman — has recently proposed implementing a system of proportional representation to replace the current majoritarian, or “winner-take-all,” model.