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The Lebanese Electoral System: Shortcomings and reform

Georgia Dagher

Lebanon’s current electoral law is an improvement over its predecessor, but as the results of the 2022 parliamentary election show, the current system falls short of being truly representative. The 2017 electoral law—a hybrid system based on proportional representation and preferential voting—redrew Lebanon’s electoral map and merged the 26 districts into 15, most of which were divided into sub-districts. The process of combining minor districts did not follow consistent criteria and was largely carried out along confessional lines.1

This reshuffling resulted in an electoral map with several fundamental deficiencies. First, it failed to ensure that votes are weighted equally across and within districts—even within a confessional framework—as MPs do not represent similar numbers of voters. While under any multiple-constituencies electoral system each MP is bound to represent a different number of voters, the districting process should aim to reduce this disparity. 

Second, the electoral system introduced high electoral thresholds, which are the minimum number of votes electoral lists need to obtain in order to win a seat. Thresholds are in fact large entry barriers and increase the number of votes that do not translate into seats, thus contravening the basic tenets of proportional representation. 

Third, the introduction of preferential voting effectively compels candidates to compete as individuals for a confessional seat, thus resembling a majoritarian race rather than a proportional one. While in theory, preferential voting should ensure that the top-ranking candidates win seats in the parliament, this is often not the case, as many MPs were elected with far fewer preferential votes than rival candidates. 

Unequal representation by district
The confessional and regional distribution of seats results in a mismatch between representation in parliament and support at the national level. 

The number of eligible voters per electoral district varies significantly and is not proportional to the number of seats assigned to a district. At the national level, each of the 128 parliamentary seats represents an average of 30,996 voters. This number ranges from 16,853 voters per seat in Beirut 1 to 46,866 voters per seat in South 2, meaning that Beirut 1 voters are overrepresented while South 2 voters are underrepresented in the parliament.2

Representation disparities are common even within electoral districts, largely due to confessional politics. Generally, variations are more common in electoral districts where sub-districts have different confessional configurations. For example, in South 3, Nabatiyeh and Bint Jbeil each have three Shia seats with a similar level of representation (about 50,000 voters per seat), while Marjaayoun-Hasbaya (two Shia, one Sunni, one Greek Orthodox, and one Druze seats) is relatively overrepresented (about 33,000 voters per seat). 

Beyond regional variations, representation is unequal even among voters from the same confession. The Maronite seat in North 1 represents 32,000 Maronite voters while the Maronite seat in Bekaa 2 represents 10,500. Each of the Sunni seats in North 1 represents 

some 71,000 Sunni voters, while each Sunni seat in Bekaa 3 represents 23,000. Each of the Shia seats in South 3 represents 50,000 Shia constituents, while the Shia seat in Mount Lebanon 1 represents 20,400.

High barrier to entry into parliament
Like many countries with a proportional representation electoral system, Lebanon’s uses an electoral threshold that a list must pass to win a seat. This threshold is intended to “filter out” parties that receive few votes and prevent undue fragmentation in parliament. Despite this, Lebanon’s parliament is highly fragmented, with 17 political parties holding seats (excluding anti-establishment MPs), and 12 of these parties having five seats or less. While most countries use a threshold that is below 5%, Lebanon’s varies from 7.7% to 20% depending on the electoral district.

These high thresholds encourage parties to form broad alliances during an electoral race. This can result in a mismatch between a party’s representation in parliament and support at the national or district level. Indeed, the 2022 election results show disparities between the vote share and seat share obtained by each party. For example, the Free Patriotic Movement occupies 13% of parliamentary seats despite it obtaining 7% of votes at the national level, and its vote share was smaller than its seat share in all the districts in which it was victorious.

High thresholds also lead to a large number of “wasted votes”, i.e. votes that do not translate into parliamentary seats. In the last elections, this was particularly the case in North 1 and South 1, where over 40% of valid votes were cast for electoral lists that did not make it to parliament. In other words, 40% of voters who headed to the polls in these two districts did not choose the lists on which their parliamentarians ran.

A lower electoral threshold, for instance 5% of valid votes, would have significantly increased representation and competition in these two districts. In North 1, five electoral lists would have won seats instead of two, and in South 1, four would have won seats instead of two. Other districts that would have highly benefitted from a lower threshold are Bekaa 1 and Mount Lebanon 3, in which about 25% of valid votes did not translate into seats for the chosen electoral lists.

A 5% threshold would also have elected five additional anti-establishment candidates, for a total of 18 representing 12 districts (instead of 13 MPs representing seven districts), at the expense of establishment MPs.

Winning candidates do not always receive popular support
A lower threshold would still fail to address one essential problem. When casting ballots, voters have the option to choose an electoral list and their preferred candidate running in their sub-district. In the context of a confessional system, the preferential vote compels candidates to compete as individuals for a confessional seat, and by extension resembles a majoritarian race rather than a proportional one. 

Furthermore, while a lower threshold would increase voters’ representation—because their votes would be more likely to apply to a list which passes the threshold—confessional quotas would, in some cases, prevent highly popular candidates from winning a seat. In fact, 22 MPs were elected with fewer preferential votes than their leading rivals, showing that the preferential vote and confessional quota in parliament are incompatible with fair and proportional representation. These 22 MPs obtained slightly less than 47,000 preferential votes, while their competitors won over 100,000.3 The case that stands out the most is the Greek Orthodox winner in Tripoli, who obtained his seat with only 79 preferential votes, while his leading competitor lost despite garnering 2,294 preferential votes. 

A path forward
The current electoral map, high thresholds, and preferential voting in conjunction with the confessional allocation of parliamentary seats result in an unrepresentative electoral system. One step towards building a fairer and more democratic system would be to increase district magnitude with larger districts. In fact, the 1989 Ta’ef Accord stated that the governorates should become the electoral districts. Larger districts would result in more fragmented constituencies in terms of confessional composition and would lead to lower “natural” thresholds (number of valid votes over the number of seats in a district), thus weakening the barriers to entering parliament and decreasing the number of wasted votes. 

Additionally, we should work towards the elimination of preferential voting so long as parliamentary seats are allocated according to a confessional quota. According to the Ta’ef Accord, a senate should be established, and its members elected through a confessional system, while parliamentary elections would no longer be subject to the confessional framework. Such a mixed electoral system has the potential to diminish confessional politics and push parties to run on policy-based campaigns to appeal to larger segments of the electorate. 


[1] One notable change to the electoral map entailed eliminating the former multi-confessional Beirut 2 electoral district. Christian seats were transferred to the Christian-majority Beirut 1, and Muslim seats transferred to the Muslim-majority Beirut 3 (now Beirut 2), resulting in more homogeneous constituencies. Perhaps the most unusual districting was the combination of the old city of Saida and Jezzine—which do not share a border and are separated by Zahrani—to form the electoral district of South 1. Zahrani, despite being within the boundaries of the Saida district, was combined with Sour to form South 2.

[2] In Beirut 1, 134,825 registered voters elect eight MPs, while in South 2, 328,064 voters elect seven MPs.

[3] Half of these 22 MPs are Maronite (eight) and Greek Orthodox (five). These eight Maronite MPs obtained a combined 19,808 preferential votes, while their competitors—who would have been elected if the system were based on the confessional allocation of seats for the candidates with the highest number of preferential votes—obtained 48,140 votes altogether. As for the five Greek Orthodox MPs, they obtained 7,316 votes, while their competitors obtained 19,393. 

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