Lebanon's Representative System

Monday, May 30, 2005

Annia Ciezadlo's May 22 Outlook article, "Lebanon's Election: Free but Not Fair," missed the point about Lebanese democracy, which is based on the representation of religious communities as opposed to a "one person, one vote" model.

Yes, Christians are a minority in Lebanon, although the figure Ms. Ciezadlo cited of 23 percent was wrong. The CIA World FactBook estimates Christians at 39 percent of the population. Perhaps Ms. Ciezadlo confused the Maronite community with Christians as a whole.

And, yes, Christians received half the seats in parliament. Far from being "state-sponsored discrimination," however, this distribution was the fruit of a compromise among the religious groups and today is not challenged by any of them.

The logic was that all religious groups would have a role in a system of set-asides and that they would be reassured enough to remain a part of Lebanon. When the formula was agreed upon at independence in 1943, it was enlightened: By positing a weak central authority and strong sects, it allowed Lebanon to avoid the authoritarianism prevalent in the Arab world.

Further, the alleged Christian advantage is far less simple than Ms. Ciezadlo presumed. For example, since the constitutional changes of the Taif Accord in 1989, the presidency, which goes to a Maronite, has lost much of its power, while the longest-serving senior official since war's end has been the Shiite speaker of parliament.

Finally, the election law that Ms. Ciezadlo lamented was imposed in part through an alliance between Hezbollah and another Shiite group, the goal being to marginalize their Christian and Shiite opponents in south Lebanon. The law actually discriminates against Christian voters, although, as a remnant of Syrian rule, it surely will be changed.

Despite its flaws, the Lebanese system merits more sympathy than many in the West accord it.


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