[Part Two] | [Contents] | [Notes]

Lebanon's First Postwar Parliamentary Election, 1992: An Imposed Choice by Farid el Khazen


Elections With Imposed Choice

Elections in prewar Lebanon have contributed to the formation of the country's political elite and helped to shape the course of Lebanese politics. The elections also showed that 'the system [wa]s capable of limited, self-induced, structural modernisation'.61 The legislature, however, despite having had a share in the development of Lebanon's political institutions, has operated more as a representative body than as an effective law-making institution.62 Since 1943, the electoral process has seen constant development in terms of representation and in Parliament's political performance. By and large, parliamentary elections in the 1950s were less corrupt, freer and more representative than those of the 1940s. The 1960s elections, likewise, were better than those of the 1950s. This pattern of improvement continued until the 1972 elections recorded the best performance in both relative and absolute terms.

What applied to elections is equally applicable to the making of electoral laws since 1943. Contrary to the controversy that accompanied the promulgation of three electoral laws in 1950, 1952 and 1957, the law of 1960 was well received and was the basis on which four successive parliaments were elected every four years. Moreover, electoral reform figured in political discussions and debates. Parties, groups and politicians put forward many suggestions to make the electoral system more representative and more confessionally balanced.63

Unlike the general course of the electoral process in the prewar period, the 1992 election reversed this pattern and introduced new modes of government behaviour that are likely to undermine the country's openness and what remains of its democratic process. In contrast to the parliamentary elections of 1960, which were held two years after the 1958 crisis and after the crisis was settled, the 1992 elections were held amid heated debates over unresolved problems left by the war. The most important problem was the displacement of 450,000 people from all sects and regions from their homes and lands. Also, in contrast with the regime of President Chehab (1958-64), whose reform plan aimed to build state institutions and promote social justice, the 1992 election was conducted by a government that enjoyed little trust and inspired even less credibility. The government of Rashid al-Solh came to power after that of his predecessor Omar Karami was forced to resign because of the economic crisis; it was the first government in Lebanon to fall for a seemingly non-political reason.64 But, al-Solh's government, which was expected to manage the country's economic problems, decided to call the election at a time when the national currency was collapsing and the economic cost of the election was very high. Lebanon lost desperately needed financial resources through tile election being held in the summer. In the past, elections were usually held in the spring or autumn so as not to interfere with the summer tourist season and the large gains to the Lebanese economy.

The four or five months prior to the election, gave the impression that the regime was playing a frivolous political game. Declarations by the Minister of the Interior that preparing the corrected voter lists would take two years were followed by counter declarations that it would merely take a few months. While the cabinet decided that a voting card for the elections was an indispensable necessity for an orderly electoral process, the idea was dropped a few weeks before election day. This occurred after the cards were printed and the treasury had borne their cost.65

Another distinguishing feature of the 1992 election was that it took place, for the first time, in the presence of foreign troops, whether there with 'official approval' (30,000 Syrian troops) or with the 'approval' of unofficial parties (Israel in South Lebanon). Elections had not been held in the presence of foreign troops on Lebanese soil since 1943. That election, however, elected a parliament that abolished the French mandate and turned Lebanon into an independent state.

State Versus Society and the Packaging of Deadlocks

Irregularities and problems associated with the 1992 election notwithstanding, the electoral process did have some attributes, particularly at the level of local electoral politics. The 1992 election re- established the direct political contact between people and their parliamentary representatives that had been interrupted by the war. It also revived the principle of accountability through the return of some form of communication between the voter and the candidate. More important, the 1992 election reinstated the principle of a limited term in Parliament, with another election coming in four years' time.

The negative repercussions of the 1992 election were, however, quite numerous. First, they widened the rift between the state and the people. Absent from the 1992 election was what is known as the 'government's list'. This is not attributable to the neutrality of the state and its refusal to intervene in elections, but to the decline in the state's role in overseeing the country's general political course, and to the decline in its influence as a principal, effective actor in political life. It was also due to the limited ability of the state to make final decisions in matters of domestic and foreign policy. The decisive factor in the 1992 election lay neither with the state nor with the people. Rather, it lay in local political forces within each electoral constituency and the relationship these forces had with Syria, the major 'invisible' political force in postwar Lebanon.

Second, the 1992 election was also marked by the absence of political opposition capable of introducing change. This phenomenon, which was first apparent in the mid-1970s, reached its height in the early 1990s. In prewar Lebanon, opposition was a principal part of the political process. However, during the war the opposition became the political equivalent of boycotting, resulting in institutional paralysis. In the wake of the Ta'if Agreement, real opposition seems to have disappeared as loyal and opposition platforms became increasingly indistinguishable. Whatever the imperfections of Lebanon's prewar democratic political system, Lebanon was one of those few developing countries where opposition politics made a difference and had a decisive impact on the political process. For example, it was intersectarian opposition that forced President al-Khoury to resign in 1952. The opposition also shaped the course of events between 1956 and 1958 and weakened President Chamoun's regime. The greatest impact of opposition politics, with farreaching implications on Lebanese politics in the 1970s, was the opposition's electoral victory against the Chehabist establishment in the 1968 parliamentary election. This election and the political alliances it generated affected the outcome of the 1970 presidential election, which opposition candidate Suleiman Franjieh won by one vote. That one vote margin enabled the opposition to end more than a decade of Chehabist influence in both the army and government.

None of the vigour and assertiveness of prewar opposition politics are present in postwar Lebanon. Both government and opposition are stalled. Just as the government is unable to make final decisions on important (and sometimes unimportant) political matters, so the opposition is equally unable to hold government accountable and ultimately to bring it down and replace it. There are many vocal critics of the government and debates in Parliament are loud and can even get stormy, but they never translate into proposals for a vote of no confidence by the opposition or the resignation of the cabinet. Both government and opposition seem to have an undeclared quota of political manoeuvring they cannot surpass. In this way, deadlocks become inherent in the decision-making process and politics, internal and external, become a function of the skilful packaging of deadlocks. An opposition that does not abide by the pre-set rules of the game has no place on the political map of post- (violated) Ta'if politics.66

The tolerated form of opposition in Lebanon today lacks substance. When opposition leaders raise fundamental issues, they either make no real impact on the political process, or they opt for boycott and exit from the political process. The middle position, which allows the practice of an effective opposition from within the political system, has no place in the politics of Lebanon today. In other words, opposition politics that seeks not to change Ta'if but to enforce its proper implementation, is paralysed. This state of affairs was reflected in the manner in which 'rival' electoral lists were composed. Indeed, in no election was the overlap between government and opposition so complete as in 1992. The irony also lay in the fact that had real opposition forces existed and had they been effective, their demands could not have been entertained either by state institutions or by officials since the decision-making process is de jure in Lebanon and de facto elsewhere.

Third, the 1992 election deepened the internal sectarian divide on the one hand and the divide between state and society on the other. In the past, divisive issues revolved around the state, which provided the axis on which the political system rested. Today, no such role is performed by the state, while Christians and Muslims are still far apart. The election was held against the will of many Lebanese, notably the Christians, whose political and religious leaders voiced strong opposition to the electoral law and rejected the timing of the election, nor were Muslims any more content with the elections.67 An internal dispute of such political and communal significance had never come to pass in prewar Lebanese politics.68 The matter is all the more alarming since the issue involves free political choice through elections.

Fourth, the increased power of parliament, notably of its speaker, as stated in the amended constitution, gives elections and the new parliament unprecedented importance. The conduct and outcome of the 1992 election raise the question of the parliament's popular legitimacy. This is important not only because of the principle of sound representation, but also because representation has an additional political content in heterogeneous societies such as Lebanon's. In exceptional circumstances, such as the first parliamentary elections held in a country emerging from 15 years of war, elections are as politically significant as adopting a new constitution. Free elections could have given the post Ta'if political process the kind of popular legitimacy the making of the Ta'if Agreement lacked. Elections, which genuinely reflect people's preferences, would have given the transitional process from war to peace badly-needed popular legitimacy.

Fifth, the structure of fragmented representation, which the 1992 election produced, is cause for concern. A large number of deputies entered the 1992 parliament in unopposed electoral contests because of the absence of true competition through the vacuum caused by the boycott. This does not, however, mean that the leading figures of the 1992 chamber do not enjoy popular support, or that they would have failed to enter parliament under other electoral conditions. What occurred in 1992 was that strong and weak candidates won through 'negative election' leading in turn to widening the elite-mass gap in the 1992 parliament, particularly within the Christian communities.69

Finally, the election highlighted the geographic and political predicament of small countries situated between two powerful states, Syria and Israel, and in a regional environment swept by drastic social and political transformation. It was evident that the internal and external circumstances that surrounded the holding of the 1992 election reflected the peculiar nature of the state of affairs that prevails in postwar Lebanon. In other countries recovering from years of war, the role of elections is to make the transition from war to peace smooth and orderly. Such elections have attracted the interest and the active involvement of the international community. This was the case, for example, in Cambodia, where the United Nations ran its largest peace operation in its history. Cambodia, like Lebanon, was the scene of war and fragmentation but, unlike Lebanon, it attracted little attention from the international community.

Non-competitive Elections to the Benefit of Another State

In the light of the above, why were elections held in Lebanon and why specifically in the summer of 1992 ? Who benefited and why? One plausible explanation lies in what Guy Hermet calls the functions of non competitive elections.70 Though the reference to state-controlled elections in authoritarian and totalitarian regimes does not apply to Lebanon, the largely imposed and uniform character of the 1992 election has superimposed a state-controlled, non-competitive pattern of elections on Lebanon's non-authoritarian state.

Whereas the functions of competitive elections are well-defined (to provide an orderly succession of office holders, or help legitimise leaders and governments), non-competitive elections fulfil functions that are not so different from those fulfilled by competitive elections.71 But, writes Hermet, they differ in that in a non-democratic regime:

    a government calling an election that it is not obliged to hold must expect such an event to have very specific functions or consequences. . . . The fact of organising elections in a certain form and at a certain time never constitutes a gratuitous act. [For this reason] rulers must have serious motives for holding elections from which they, rightly or wrongly, anticipate certain benefits. [Such benefits relate to changing] the internal equilibrium of the governing circles by reshaping the distribution of power among groups in the country.72

While these functions identified with non-competitive elections apply, though in varying degrees, to the 1992 election, they are part of a process of electoral socialisation of groups and individuals that does not end once polling ends. Indeed, 'it is hoped that the population will get

I used to having no choice other than that imposed by the ... government, or even that it will forget its former, less restricted choice and will thus learn moderate electoral behaviour, making control eventually unnecessary.73

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