LEBANESE DEMOCRACY?

LEBANESE DEMOCRACY? I often had cause to wonder whether or not people understood this during the Cedar Revolution, and in light of the president's repeated insistence that Hezbollah is afraid of democracy during today's press conference, it's clear that the White House doesn't. Democracy, simply put, isn't what's at issue in Lebanese politics.

Read up on Lebanon's demographics and odd electoral system and you'll see that both before and after the Cedar Revolution, Lebanon has been a democracy of sorts. They have elections (democracy!) but no "one person, one vote" principle (no democracy!). Instead, the Taif Agreement apportions parliamentary seats according to a formula that overrepresents Christian groups mainly at the expense of Shiites. One may or may not regard this as undemocratic, but nothing changed during the Revolution. Rather, what happened in essence was that leading Sunni and Druze politicians (notably Rafik Hariri and Walid Jumblatt) defected from the pro-Syrian coalition that had been running the country and joined the anti-Syrian opposition. For his trouble, Hariri got himself killed by the Syrian government. That precipitated a protest movement which led to the departure of Syrian forces and brought to power an anti-Syrian coalition comprised of the main Druze and Sunni parties along with parties representing most Lebanese Christians (with the rest in a bloc affiliated with Michael Aoun).

Why does Lebanon's Shiite community -- the largest demographic group -- put up with this malaportionment? Well, in part because Hezbollah is allowed to remain armed, and Hezbollah along with Amal, the other main Shiite party, simply run significant portions of the country more-or-less autonomously from the central government. Most everyone concerned prefers this arrangement to re-starting a bloody civil war. What's more, it works out okay in practice. Shiites are governed by their own parties, while Lebanon's diverse non-Shiite communities together run the parts of the country where they live through a system of elite brokerage. If you wanted to turn Lebanon into a proper majoritarian democracy, you would need not only to extend Beirut's sovereignty throughout the country and disarm Hezbollah, but change the electoral system. The result of that would be to give Hezbollah more, not less, power over the country as a whole.

--Matthew Yglesias

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