It’s Lebanon’s unique form of democracy.
Almost everyone in the country complains about it. The same political dynasties dominating year after year, whether in government or parliament. Politicians work for their sect, or their own families. None managing to repair an electricity system that’s been decrepit for decades or organize the proper collection of garbage because of business feuds among the political elite.
It’s also a tough system to change.
No one wants their community shortchanged, either of power or patronage. After the bitter 1975-1990 civil war, the balance between Shiites, Sunnis and Christians- the main sects among 18 official ones - preserves a stability that always seems on the verge of collapse, but, for the past decade at least, has not.
With Lebanon holding parliament elections Sunday, here are seven things to know about the system.
It’s the first time the Lebanese are voting for a parliament in nine years. It is also the first time elections are being held since neighboring Syria’s war began in 2011. The vote has been postponed a number of times over security concerns it would ignite tensions among Lebanon’s sects, already heightened by that war.
Lawmakers have haggled over election reform for years, finally passing a new law last summer to replace one in place since 1960.
The law allows expats to vote for the first time. Of 900,000 voters abroad, only 83,000 registered and just over half of them voted last week.
For the first time, women made up nearly 10 percent of the candidates, up from a meager 1.7 percent in 2009. Only four women made it to Lebanon’s 128-seat parliament in the last election, a dismal figure compared to other countries in the region. Also, a record number of civil society activists and independents are running, hoping to at least open a crack in Lebanon’s system.
The new election law is so complex that many have quipped they would rather stay at home because they can’t figure out how their vote will be computed.
The law implements a proportional system that awards seats by the share of vote received, instead of the former winner-takes-all system in each district. It reduces the number of electoral constituencies from 23 to 15, and allows voters to choose both an electoral list and a preferred candidate from that list.
In theory, it should allow candidates beyond traditional power players to win a seat in parliament. But it also preserves the sectarian divvying-up of seats in different districts; Muslims and Christians each get around half, and smaller communities the remainder.
The elephant in the room
Lebanon’s strongest political party is the only one with an active militia: Hezbollah.
The Iranian-backed Shiite faction has thousands of fighters in Syria supporting President Bashar Assad, an intervention that nearly tore Lebanon apart last year. Sunnis largely sympathize with the rebels trying to bring Assad down and resent Hezbollah’s domination of Lebanon’s politics and it maintaining an armed force separate from, and stronger than, the national military.
But that issue has been too sensitive and divisive to surface in the election debate. Instead, many have focused on calls for the return of more than a million Syrian refugees who have flooded into Lebanon, saying they threaten the sectarian balance and burden the infrastructure.
Fathers and sons
Even though the civil war ended 28 years ago, politics are still dominated by former warlords and family dynasties embroiled in sectarian divides. These elites’ grip on power has always enabled them to settle elections before voters get to the polls.
Some are virtually untouchable. The 80-year-old parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, a Shiite who has held the post for more than 25 years, is running virtually uncontested.
Others are now passing their seats on to their children. Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, 68, has stepped aside for his son, Taymour. The seat of Suleiman Frangieh, a 52-year-old Maronite Christian leader who is seen as a potential presidential candidate, is going to his son Tony. Michelle Tueini, daughter of lawmaker and journalist Gibran Tueni who was assassinated in a 2005 car bomb, is also running.
One Lebanese website listed 2nd generation politicians running to replace their fathers, then posted pictures of their toddler children, captioned: “Your parliament members for 2025.”
For the disenfranchised and the forgotten, election season is a chance to get noticed.
Manal Kortam is running, but only symbolically - she has no right to run or vote because she’s Palestinian. Actually, her mother is Lebanese and father Palestinian, but under Lebanese law women cannot pass down citizenship.
There are about 174,000 registered Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, many of them descendants of those who fled to the country after the creation of Israel in 1948. They have no citizenship and few rights, are highly restricted in where they can work, and are often seen as a disruption to the delicate sectarian balance.
Kortam took to social media with her #WeExist campaign, touring refugee camps and speaking on TVs “so they get ready to deal with us after the elections,” as she put it on her Twitter account.
The selfie prime minister
Prime Minister Saad Hariri has plastered pictures of himself - and his assassinated father whose political mantle he inherited - all over Beirut, including at its landmark seaside Ferris wheel.
His new nickname? “The selfie prime minister,” coined for his affinity for taking selfies with supporters. He even created a selfie app. Some of his supporters have painted sheep and camels blue, the campaign color of his Future Movement party, and paraded them along streets before slaughtering them, sparking outrage from rights activists.
It’s a sign that his movement, a bastion of Sunnis, is struggling. The new election law opens up room for alternative Sunnis to garner votes, and Hariri has faced some resentment for his close ties with Shiite Hezbollah, on whose support he relies for his post.
After the euphoria, jokes
The change in the law has sparked some optimism the sectarian, family-entrenched political system could be cracked. When it soon became apparent that it likely won’t, resistance took the form of jokes and sarcasm.
So bring in the clowns, literally. A group of clowns known as “Clown Me In” has been mocking campaign slogans.
“It is time!” one Christian party’s campaign posters proclaimed. “It is time for popcorn,” countered a red-nosed clown in an online meme.
A Twitter account listed 12 octogenarian candidates and pronounced them The List of “We Belong to God and to Him we all return” - a local saying for those that have already passed away.
Two artists, Michelle and Noel Keserwany, struck a chord with a music video gone viral, urging young people to make new choices and break the cycle. Its refrain is a catchy call to action: “Here we go again, here we go again.”