Lebanese Elections and the Lebanese Armenian Politics

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By Ayda Erbal

BEIRUT — A first in nine years and deferred for 5 years for security reasons, Lebanese elections were held on May 6 and brought victory to Hezbollah party and its allies.

This was an election with many changes, challenges and novelties including the new electoral law which introduced for the first time, elements of proportional representation.

First proposed by then Interior Minister of the Najib Mikati’s government Marwan Charbel in 2011, the new law was ratified in June 2017 and will also allow Lebanese expats to vote for the first time in the country’s history. Even though there are up to a few million Lebanese citizens abroad, state-run news agency set the number of registered voters close to 83,000 with expat Lebanese registrants in Arab countries numbering approximately 12,600. They voted on April 27 and 29 — a week before their compatriots in the homeland.

Even though the Lebanese-Armenians form approximately 4 percent of the larger Lebanese population, Apostolic and Catholic combined, they make up 34 percent of the East Beirut electorate, which made them key in securing the seats in that district.

In light of the importance of the Armenian vote in one of the important districts in these elections, we had a conversation with Prof. Ara Sanjian of University of Michigan Dearborn, an Armenian-American scholar from Lebanon on the recent changes of the electoral law. Sanjian is working on a manuscript on Armenian political parties and electoral politics in Lebanon.

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(Editor’s note: The expanded version of this interview can be found on www.mirrorspectator.com.https://mirrorspectator.com/2018/05/17/expanded-version-lebanese-elections-and-the-lebanese-armenian-politics/)

Ayda Erbal: What did change with last year’s electoral law and how does it compare to the earlier law?

Ara Sanjian: The technical name given to the Lebanese system is called consociationalism. Basically, it gives the people communal rights in addition to individual rights. Lebanon recognizes 18 different religious communities and most of them have seats allocated to them in the parliament. Currently the Lebanese parliament consists of 128 deputies. This has been the case since the end of the Civil War in 1990. These 128 deputies are divided equally between Muslims (64) and Christians (64).

Erbal: Was it always like that? I remember that after the census of 1932 the ratio was 6 to 5.

Sanjian: Yes, from 1943 to 1990 the ratio was 6 to 5. After the end of the Civil War it’s a 50-50 divide. But even within each religion we have the various confessions with a different number of seats allocated to each one of them. So, within the 64 Christian seats, for example, we have specific number of seats allocated to Maronites (34), the Greek Orthodox (14), the Greek Catholics (8), the Armenian Orthodox (5), plus one seat each for Armenian Catholics (1), Evangelicals (1) and to what we call the Minorities (1). Minorities include the people of Latin rite, plus the Syriac and Assyrian churches, as well as other 6 or 7 small communities. The 64 Muslim seats are divided into equal number of Sunni (27) and Shia (27) deputies, but also smaller allocations for the Druze (8) and the Alawites (2). All these are part of the electoral law and the seats are distributed in the various constituencies according to religion. For example, in a certain district, seats may be pre-allocated for, say, two Maronites, one Greek Orthodox, one Sunni and one Druze. Only people from those sects can actually nominate themselves for those seats in that specific constituency. However, everybody registered in the constituency can vote. So, it is possible, for example, that you may vote in a constituency where there is no seat for your own sect, but any winning deputy has to get as many votes as possible and so technically those deputies who can also get votes outside their religious group will be in a much better situation to win.

Erbal: How were the community quotas were secured all these years since the last census was in 1932? How did the population figures compare and change across/within different Christian and Muslim sects?

Sanjian: This issue’s history goes back to the Mutassarifate of Mount Lebanon created as an Ottoman Sanjak back in 1860/61. The Sanjak had its own elected council with seats distributed among different communities. And when the Lebanese territories were expanded in 1920, the French authorities kept the same kind of system and they roughly divided the seats based on the census they conducted in 1920-1921. Up until 1929, quotas in all elected councils were based on this census. In 1943 when Lebanon became independent, in order to keep internal peace, the numbers in the 1932 census were roughly taken into consideration. This is when they decided on the 6 Christian to 5 Muslim ratio since Christians outnumbered Muslims slightly, and there also was a very small Jewish community. Over the years, the percentage of Lebanese Muslims has increased.  … Christians have often complained since 1992 that a large number of Christian deputies, including Armenian deputies, are often being elected by Muslim votes. Some boundaries of districts have been changed to make small Christian ghettos where Muslim vote would not be that influential, leading to another anomaly.

 

Erbal: I also read about the citizenship laws, for example, Lebanese mothers not being able to pass their citizenship to their kids. Were you able to follow that discussion? How will this effect the population balance?

Sanjian: This is still being debated. This has been a major demand of the feminist groups. I must say that I also suffered from the same law until the end of the Civil War. It was only in 1994 that I became a Lebanese citizen, although my father had settled in Lebanon around 1957. My parents got married in 1967, and my mother was a Lebanese from the beginning of her life. Basically, I could not get citizenship because there was not such law. But, after the end of the Civil War, some foreigners living in Lebanon were given citizenship, and my father and I were among those who benefited from this law. Can you imagine a Lebanese diplomat, if she’s married to a foreigner abroad, cannot pass her citizenship to her children? Of course, sometimes presidents bestow with special decree citizenship for some celebrities, but decrees do not replace the law. Christians are very sensitive, thinking that more Muslims will become Lebanese citizens and that this is the real reason why this is acted upon. Actually, this fear of affecting the population according to the census is hindering the development of Lebanese democracy and individual rights. Everybody recognizes that, but they say that there is some kind of raison d’état which needs to be held higher than individual rights. This is also a very acute issue. In return, the Lebanese parliament also passed a law a couple of years or so ago, which is valid for 10 years and it gives the right to former Lebanese citizens who were abroad and careless, and moreover did not register their kids and technically lost their citizenship to reapply and recover their citizenship.

Erbal: Palestinians are not given citizenship rights in Lebanon. They cannot work in certain sectors and hold certain degrees, but what is the current situation for Palestinians? I am assuming Christians will not be happy if citizenship is extended to Palestinians.

Sanjian: Not only Christians, but also Shias will not be happy because most of the Palestinian refugees are Sunni. The main political rivalry in Lebanon in recent years has been between Sunnis and Shias. The mainstream Sunni organization is backed by Saudi Arabia, and the mainstream Shia organizations are backed by Iran. So Lebanon has become an arena of, hopefully not a proxy war but, a proxy struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Palestinians on the other hand are not given citizenship under the idea to which Lebanon remains subscribed that Palestinians have the right to return [to their homeland] according to a UN resolution passed in 1949. UNRWA, which takes care of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, has up to 400,000 names on its list. People always said that this number was exaggerated, given the fact that many of the people on the list of UNRWA have migrated to other countries. A few months back, the Lebanese government conducted a survey and the actual number of the Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon was put at 174,000. Some people think that the numbers have been brought down in order to reduce political sensitivities as much as possible, but there is no hope the Palestinians will gain anything out of this. The argument put forward will be: “if we give Palestinians Lebanese citizenship, the only country that will benefit from this will be Israel,” in the sense that Palestinians will lose their right to go back to their own homes. And, of course, the argument will also be used in order not to effect the intra-communal balance among the Lebanese. By the way, there are some (Palestinian) Armenians as well who fall in the same category. Some of them are now getting Armenian citizenship, now that the Armenian government is giving Armenian citizenship.

Erbal: Do we know the size of the Armenian constituency in the 1932 census?

Sanjian: Sure. First and foremost, let me go a little bit back. There were few Armenians living in Beirut and even fewer living in the Mutassarifate of Mount Lebanon during Ottoman times. Probably the total number was not more than 1000 at the time. During the 1915 deportations of the genocide, Lebanon was not initially on the major deportation routes. Some people went to Mount Lebanon [around 1915]. However, most of the [Armenian] refugees came [to Lebanon] in 1921. In 1918, as you know, the French took charge of the southern parts of today’s Turkey after the Armistice, including Cilicia. And a lot of [Armenian genocide] survivors went to Cilicia. They included people both from Cilicia and from other regions of historic Armenia or the eastern provinces of the Ottoman Empire. They were hoping that they will return to their homes once there was final peace. But, after the Kemalists forced the French out through the Ankara agreement of 1921, signed by Franklin Bouillon and Kemal Ataturk, the exodus of Armenians from Cilicia happened and most of them ended up in either Syria or Lebanon. The [Lebanese] census of 1921-22 was being conducted as these refugees were coming to Lebanon. Most of them came by boat from Mersin to the Lebanese coast. Others came by road. Their numbers were not reflected in the [1921-1922] census. That’s why during the elections of 1925 and 1929, Armenians did not have any [pre-allocated] seats. The Treaty of Lausanne gave everybody who was a former Ottoman citizen the right to choose the citizenship of a post-Ottoman country, and over 25,000 Armenians at that time chose to become Lebanese citizens. They received their IDs in early 1925 and, in the summer of 1925, they were allowed to register as voters in the election. However, they did not have any Armenian seats. In the 1929 elections, they tried to have one seat in the Parliament but the French authorities refused. The next elections were held in 1934. Armenians were now given a seat, because the refugees and their families had been included in the 1932 census. Since then, every new parliament has had at least one, and now more, Armenian seats. Prior to the Lebanese Civil War in 1975, there were about 200,000 Armenians in Lebanon, although that number included a few tens of thousands of Syrian Armenians as well, who had moved from Syria during Nasser’s control of Syria and in the post-Nasser era but still did not have Lebanese citizenship. Many of those [Syrian-Armenians] became Lebanese citizens after the 1994 decree giving citizenship to people who lived long enough in Lebanon. However, there was also a very large exodus of Armenians during the Civil War, the reason why we do not know for sure how many Armenians live in Lebanon today. But, of course, we know how many Armenians are voting. They are now not as influential as they were before 1975 and this new law makes them even less influential because the introduction of the system of preferential vote. Now, Armenian votes are needed mainly to make sure that Armenian seats would go to deputies who represent well-established Armenian organizations and political parties.

For example, one very famous figure was Michel el-Murr, who was an engineer by profession and a contractor, but also a person very much involved in Lebanese politics. He basically had an alliance with the Tashnag party in the Metn district, where Bourj Hammoud with a large Armenian population is. It was a regular feature for the last 50 years, up until this election, for the Tashnags to vote for Michel el-Murr. Of course, he would then return that favor by trying to help Armenians whenever they needed. Now that ability is much less. For example, on this occasion, the Tashnags and Murr contested the elections separately, because they had calculated that running together on the same list would not now provide any additional advantage to either side. Other Christians are also having this problem, as I said before, because of the numbers. The Tahsnag party is the strongest party among the Armenians in Lebanon. Even though we still don’t have the full breakdown of the Armenian vote of the May 6th election, in the last two or three elections, 75% or more of the Armenian voters actually voted according to Tashnag party preferences. During the election campaign this year, however, the Party was very candid and open about its [limited] ability to gain all Armenian seats. Of the six Armenian seats, the Tashnag party had concluded that its voters were enough to guarantee the election of three candidates, while other factors, such as alliances, etc. would decide to whom the other Armenian seats would go. That’s why the Tashnag party openly addressed the Armenian voters in its electoral rallies through the following statement: “we want you to vote for us. However, if for one reason or another you are not satisfied with us, we wish that you vote for the other candidates backed by the two other Armenian traditional parties: the Hunchakians and the Ramgavars.” The party openly warned against voting for “one-day Armenians”. This term has been coined very recently and is about those Armenians who do not actually participate in Armenian community life except on April 24 every year, when they also proclaim their allegiance and commitment to the Armenian cause.

This is a major problem that the community is facing because of assimilation. When Armenians came to Lebanon over 90 years ago, language was a big barrier because very few Armenians knew Arabic. They lived in clusters, and even today language is an issue for the middle-aged and above. But, gradually, these clusters have broken down, plus more and more Armenians are no longer attending Armenian community schools. They are instead going to foreign missionary schools, etc. and are becoming a more and more integrated group among the Christians of Lebanon.

Erbal: How do the Armenian parties form their candidate lists? Is there any difference among Armenian parties in terms of designating/ choosing their candidates?

Sanjian: Usually, Armenian lists are not single party lists. Supporters of various groups have come together, some because they traditionally work together, like the Free Patriotic Movement and the Tashnags since 2005. I’m sure all factions calculated how much each one of them would bring in votes. The Free Patriotic Movement usually does not touch on the Armenian slot, so the Tashnag party nominated its own candidates in both Beirut I and Metn. Meanwhile, the Tashnags do not say much about the Free Patriotic movement nominating their candidates for the non-Armenian seats.

Erbal: Are all Armenian parties like this?

Sanjian: The Tashnags, for example, have nominated Hagop Pakradouny, who is the general secretary of the party’s Central Committee in Lebanon and an incumbent deputy, to run again in Metn. In Beirut I, they had three candidates. One of them, Hagop Terzian, is a party member and the other two, Alexander Matossian and Serge Tchoukhadarian, are close to the party. In Zahle, they also sponsored, but in a lower key manner, another candidate. Hunchakians are small and nominated just one person, who was also an incumbent deputy, and they worked for that end. The Ramgavars actually nominated three. All the other Armenian candidates did run as independents and they did not get any coverage in the Armenian language press since all the newspapers are controlled by the respective parties. The Independent Armenian candidates used the Lebanese television stations in order to talk to general voters.

Erbal: This would have been a strong indicator for intra-party democracy.

Sanjian: To some extent, yes. In Lebanon the Tashnag party used to win almost all elections after the end of World War II until 2000. Since 2000 the Tashnags have always gotten most of the Armenian votes but ended up with only two seats among six. That was in 2000, 2005 and also in 2009. However, that has not affected at all internal Armenian community affairs. The Tashnag party continues to control all church bodies etc. in the Armenian Orthodox community. People have come to know that it’s not very important who the Armenian deputies in the Lebanese Parliament are. So there’s not as much interest in that process as it used to be.

Erbal: I know it’s still very early given the fact that you don’t have access to the detailed results but what happened in these elections? Any surprise for Armenians?

Sanjian: Armenian political parties, especially the dominant Tashnag party, appear surprised and unhappy with the low percentage of Armenian participation — less than what it was in 2009, during the last elections. The reasons behind this drop are not analyzed yet, and we should not jump into conclusions at this early stage. The Tashnags officially had four candidates, and three of them were elected – of the three Hagop Pakradouny is a Tashnag party member, whereas Hagop Terzian and Alexander Matossian are only party supporters. That raises the number of members of their parliamentary bloc from two (in 2000, 2005 and 2009) to three. They also lent support to a fifth Armenian candidate, George Bouchikian, in the district of Zahle (where the Armenian village of Anjar is situated), but he was not elected because his list overall could not pass the threshold in that constituency. The Hunchakians had one, and the Ramgavars had three candidates, and all lost. Therefore, only three of the six Armenian deputies in the new chamber are representatives of traditional Armenian organizations. The other three elected Armenian deputies – Paula Yacoubian, retired General Jean Talouzian and Eddie Demirjian, have no established links with community institutions and organizations and can be classified among those who were pejoratively described as “one-day Armenians.” Demirjian got elected with only 77 votes in his favor, when another Armenian candidate who got 3000 votes in the same constituency, Marie Jeanne Bilezikjian, lost. This was because they were on different lists and seats are distributed according to the percentages received by the various lists in general. On the other hand, the only seat won by what has become known as the civil society in Lebanon (a group of people outside established political parties and demanding radical changes from outside the established system) is Yacoubian.

 

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