MAY 17, 2018
By Ayda Erbal
Special to the Mirror-Spectator
BEIRUT — For the first time in nine years, after being deferred for five years for security reasons, Lebanese elections were held on May 6 and brought victory to the 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 Najib Mikati’s government Marwan Charbel in 2011, a new law was ratified in June 2017 to allow Lebanese expatriates to vote for the first time in the country’s history. Even though there are up to a few million Lebanese citizens abroad, the 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.
The candidates in these elections ranged from old establishment candidates, their sons, daughters or other close relatives and representatives of established political parties, to a new generation of political activists who were set to challenge this old and new-old status quo. The other welcome and extreme change was in the numbers of female candidates who almost dectupled their numbers from 12 in 2009 to 111 in 2018. As a matter of fact, out of 86 women in the final elections list, 6 women, including one Armenian, the TV anchor Paula Yacoubian, who ran as part of the coalition of independents Koullouna Watani, were elected.
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 the University of Michigan at Dearborn, an Armenian-American scholar from Lebanon on the recent changes of the electoral law, the composition of the Armenian vote and the intra-party democracy of the Armenian parties and their candidacy process. Sanjian is working on a manuscript on Armenian political parties and electoral politics in Lebanon.
Ayda Erbal: Professor Sanjian, thank you for doing this interview with us. I have a couple of questions first of all regarding the general electoral system in Lebanon, then we will move to the specifics of the Armenian vote and representation. 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.
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. But there is no obligation for the voter to vote for a person from his or her own sect. An Armenian Orthodox can vote for a Maronite; a Maronite can vote for a Sunni; a Sunni can vote for an Armenian Orthodox and so on.
Erbal: How are the candidates then able to secure seats, let’s say, in the highly unlikely case of an Armenian running in a district but not being very popular among Armenians? If Armenians are voting for others, have there been cases where the seat was not filled by Armenians because they were undervoted?
Sanjian: The candidate, in the previous law, who got the most votes for that particular seat, basically won, but the system was that in Lebanon those constituencies were and are multimember, so technically when you are going to the polls, you are voting for more than one candidate. For example, in the last elections of 2009, I was voting in Beirut’s first constituency which at that time had five slots, of which one was Armenian Orthodox, one Armenian Catholic, and the rest were from other Christian sects.
Erbal: This is district 1 in East Beirut, right?
Sanjian: This was in 2009. Now, the district borders have a bit changed. So, I could vote for five different people and, because the lists were not closed lists but were open lists, people actually sometimes changed and added names or left out certain names. As long as the number of the candidates for each sect is observed, basically your vote is valid. So, in that sense, for example, an Armenian weak candidate would join with a non-Armenian strong candidate who used to garner a lot of votes. So, with the votes of that person, the weak candidates can also win. There have been a lot of cases where seats have been filled by candidates who have gotten the majority of the votes in the constituencies, but a minority votes cast by the members of their own sects.
Erbal: This is exactly what I was trying to ask. Thank you.
Sanjian: This happened with Armenians a number of times in the past. We know about this because, according to the law in 1960, people actually vote in large constituencies in polling booths which are specific to certain communities. For example, again in 2009, my polling station was a school and, as you entered the school, there were many polling booths in various classrooms, and each one of them was for voters from a specific sect – those for Armenian Orthodox voters, those for Greek orthodox voters, etc. Moreover, because of the conservatism of the society, you also have separate polling booths for men and women.
Erbal: So you could see extremely detailed data about who is voting for whom?
Sanjian: Yes, which is bad.
Erbal: Of course.
Sanjian: Yes, because it’s very easy to pigeonhole people and say that you got elected by people from outside your own group. Legally, you cannot challenge that. A person who is elected by voters from other communities is a legally elected deputy and nobody will be able to take that to the court because the court will reject your appeal. However, a loser can make political capital out of it by saying that his/her elected rival (who is, after all, from the same sect) is not a true representative of the sect that he/she is supposed to represent. This was a major issue until now. In the new law, hopefully this will slightly change, although I am sure there will still be certain cases like that when a candidate receiving a minority of the votes cast by members of his/her community may end up being that same community’s representative in parliament.
Erbal: It is very interesting. So Armenian representation may depend on non-Armenian votes, and other majorities, or other minorities who may be larger than the Armenian minority in that particular district, can choose the Armenian representative through the larger amount of votes they cast. Given the confessional/consociational nature of the system, it becomes all the problematic since the set quotas are not a guarantee of Armenians choosing the Armenian deputies.
Sanjian: Or, there is the other way around. If within a numerically strong community you have a very serious race between two candidates from the same community and ultimately they are running against one another, since the seats are pre-allocated, if a numerically weak community in the same district votes as a single bloc, it will affect the outcome in that district and the election of candidates from more numerous communities. There have been cases when people have said to a certain, say Maronite, deputy, “oh, you’ve won the Maronite seat only because in your own constituency the Shias, or the Armenians, or the Sunnis, or the Druze voted for you in large numbers, while the Maronite voters were divided.” Again, there is nothing you can do, but the losers may again try to gain political capital out of it by saying that the winner, who was their opponent, was not too representative of his/her own community. It’s like trying to square the circle. That’s the basic problem of the Lebanon where you want to have a democratic system with enshrined group rights. However it’s very difficult to have a true group representation.
Erbal: How 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. In the Taif Accord in 1990, the participants decided to stop counting and settled for a 50-50 ratio. The problem is today about a third of the Lebanese voters are Christian and the rest are Muslim. So even though we have the 50-50 ratio, because also everybody has equal votes, some Christian deputies are being elected by Muslim voters, and, of course, they will be taking up positions endearing more to the Muslims. So, the current ratios were adopted in 1992, in the first post-Taif elections in Lebanon, and since then the allocation of seats among the various religious communities has not changed. Even if there is no census, we roughly know the percentages of various sects. We can deduce them indirectly from the voters’ lists. But, in the end, this has become a very sensitive issue. 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. For example, the average number of votes that the deputy needs in a Christian constituency to pass the threshold and get elected is much lower than a neighboring Muslim constituency’s candidate would need to get elected. You may have some deputies elected with 6500 votes in Beirut I, but in a neighboring constituency, this number can be 10,000, or 15,000 in some cases. As I said, this is like squaring the circle and this issue will never be sorted out unless Lebanon becomes a truly secular state, but this is more like a dream rather than an actual political reality for the foreseeable future.
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. There are still a few years left in this window and some groups are actually encouraging their constituencies who may be outside Lebanon for 2-3 generations to recover their citizenship and register their kids. It is expected that more Lebanese Christians will become citizens under this law than Muslims, which will keep the balance at an acceptable rate in some sense. But, on the other hand, some of these people recovering their Lebanese citizenship are mostly cut off from the day to day life in Lebanon, but they will be given the right to vote, without paying any taxes in Lebanon, and they don’t know much about the internal problems of Lebanon… So, based on what are they going to vote? Yet again Lebanon being what it is, we do not expect any quick fixes for this either. The elite will try to pretend that they’re solving the problems and so forth.
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, because probably living as a foreigner living in Lebanon as a citizen of Republic of Armenia is better than living as a Palestinian in Lebanon. We don’t know exactly how much, but some authors put the number of Armenians who came from Palestine to Lebanon at 6,000 after 1948. I know Palestinian Armenians who are still living in Lebanon for two or three generations. They can remain in the country for as long as they want, but they face certain issues when it comes to holding certain jobs, for example, such as practicing as a doctor.
Erbal: Can you be dual citizen of Lebanon and still retain your voting rights?
Sanjian: Yes, sure. For example, I received American citizenship after living in the US, but I can still vote in Lebanon.
Erbal: Let’s talk about the new electoral law, which was ratified last year. Can you please talk a bit about the specifics of this new proportional system –a first in Lebanese history?
Sanjian: I already talked about the earlier law, where the system was based on a multimember constituency with a winner-takes-all principle. Technically, a very powerful political boss with a lot of following could then not only ensure his own election – and I would use “his” because most of the political leadership is male in Lebanon and women are usually interim officeholders until the next male person in the extended family being ready to take up that family seat – but together with him he could take in other people [as well]. So, the Lebanese have used the term “bus,” basically because a bus driver can take a lot of people with him in the same bus. Usually, they [also] call this a “bulldozer,” because in the winner-takes-all system the winner crushed the opposition. For example, a list of seven candidates could have gotten 49% of the vote in a seven-member constituency and all the other candidates on the competing list would have gotten 51% of the vote. In this case, all seats would be filled by the 51% list, without giving any seats to those who got 49%. Some of the constituencies were small, having two or three seats, but some of them have been very large at different times. This principle never changed in Lebanon until very recently but the size of the constituencies and the number of constituencies was gerrymandered almost every time by the ruling authorities to make sure that fewer of their opponents would be elected. The new law comes after demands for some kind of proportional representation, going back to even the pre-Civil War years. Already in the 1970s, there were political parties that were calling for proportional representation, and we got that in Lebanon only in 2017. This [new law] is also a very diluted proportional system, because technically you have to make proportions not only within the competing lists in a constituency, but you have to also make sure that the pre-allocated seats will be distributed [to the various religious communities] and ensure that different regions of the country are also represented. So, the new law is a very complex system about which I won’t be able to go into much detail in an oral interview. Technically, in this new system every voter is voting for one person because you have to choose a list and you have to also give your preferential vote to one person on that list, which basically reduces the ability of powerful people to carry other candidates with them, unless they organize [their electoral machines] in such a way to tell their followers to also vote for other people that they [i.e., the political bosses] trust. Political parties are in a very good position here because they can very easily distribute their votes and tell their followers to vote for the X or Y or Z candidate and make sure that each one of them has enough votes to be elected. While, for example, if a hundred thousand votes go to a political boss and very few votes to his followers, in the end only the boss will be elected and nobody else. We now really need good political machines, and in Lebanon we have political machines because, on and off, Lebanon has held elections since 1922 and, compared to other Arab countries, Lebanese elections have been more competitive. They are far from being perfect but, compared to other Arab countries, it matters [in Lebanon] how many people go to vote, who they choose, etc. And technologically the system has now become very sophisticated. The new system has preprinted ballots, which really makes much more difficult to have control over the voters and it also reduces the idea of buying votes and checking if the person they have bribed is following instructions.
Erbal: This is a question which is part of what you just actually said. You talked about thresholds earlier in the district. So what kind of threshold is required in order to get elected in a district?
Sanjian: The principle is the same but, of course, the numbers will vary. We have some districts with larger number of voters and we also have some others with smaller number of voters and fewer seats. So, basically, at the end of the day, what they will do is to count the number of votes cast – noteligible voters, but the actual number of votes cast – and divide it by the number of seats on offer in that constituency. Any list that gets less than that number will be eliminated and then its votes will be divided among the others and the seats will be distributed among the latter. So, this is the new system that will govern the vote count. And, of course, it’s in the interest of the larger parties to have higher number of their voter turnout because that will make it more difficult for challengers to gain the necessary number of votes in order to enter the parliament.
Erbal: Let’s move to the history of Armenian vote in Lebanon. 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 back 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. Under the new law, their votes will not help other non-Armenian candidates to be actually carried with them into parliament. In the past, non-Armenian politicians entering electoral coalitions with Armenian parties usually supported the Armenian community with financial assistance in exchange for the Armenian votes they received or made favors to Armenians when they were in power in order to guarantee Armenian continued support. For example, one very famous such 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. That maybe through some contributions to some Armenian causes but, more importantly, by helping Armenians push through legislation for government contracts to benefit those neighborhoods where Armenians live in large numbers. 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. In this election, we had a large number of these individual as candidates running for the Armenian seats. A few of these candidates, such as TV anchor Paula Yacoubian who got elected as an independent, are quite popular in Lebanon in general. Another candidate who could not get elected was the daughter of a former Lebanese Armenian deputy and minister. But, ultimately, these people cannot be seen as a part of the core of the Armenian community.
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.
To put in technical terms, while the traditional Armenian community is part of the trans-nation, this other group of Armenians which are gradually getting assimilated, is no longer part of the Armenian trans-nation. They are like any other religious community within Lebanon. For example, recent events in Armenia, have, of course, attracted a lot of attention among Armenians in Lebanon. The Armenian trans-nation ultimately reacts every time something happens inside the same trans-nation. This month, it’s ‘events in Armenia’. A couple of years ago, it was ‘how to deal with the Armenian refugees from Aleppo’, etc. So, there is that kind of global network of Armenianness. Armenian traditional political parties, other organizations and churches are part of this trans-nation. However, “one-day Armenians” will probably not show that much interest about what’s going on among other Armenians in other parts of the world. But, of course, when the elections are over, this is a serious issue that has to be addressed within the Armenian community, not only on how to deal with but also how to try to benefit from this kind of people for the welfare of the community.
Even though Armenian parties usually compete against each other during Lebanese elections, there were instances in Lebanese history where Armenian parties made alliances amongst themselves. In 1996, all of them participated on a single list, but that was a very rare case and there was also a lot of Syrian pressure to make that happen. Nowadays, it’s a very different kind of situation, where the struggle is more about the image of the Armenian both inside and outside the community. I think this is a problem which will get more and more acute because of assimilation and also because of Armenians who will migrate out of Lebanon in the coming years. Probably some of these Armenian emigrants in the future will go to societies where there is more Armenian activism, for Lebanon is not very influential in the Armenian diaspora as it was up to a certain point in the 1970s and early 80s. There is also the idea of going to and getting established in Armenia. We don’t know what the outcome of recent popular protests and election of Nikol Pashinyan will be. If the demonstrators are able to achieve some of their goals, and we have a more democratic, a more pluralistic and freer Armenia in the coming years, I think the attraction for Armenians in the Middle East to go and settle in Armenia will increase because of the ongoing political turmoil in the Arab countries in general. So, all these factors have to be seen together as constituting a struggle over the soul of the Armenian community in Lebanon.
Erbal: So, basically, we are talking about East Beirut.
Sanjian: Yes. There are some Armenians who vote in West Beirut, but there are no Armenian seats there. So, probably in return, they voted for candidates backed by Mr. Hariri. I think that kind of a deal has been done. I will be more comfortable when the detailed results are announced.
Erbal: So, basically, the Hunchakian deal will spillover to West Beirut.
Sanjian: Well. I don’t know whether this was a fixed agreement, I think it was more like the coming of minds together. I think, from a Tashnag perspective, it’s better to have a Hunchakian in the Parliament even though he is aligned with Saad al-Hariri, rather than a person with no real ties to the Armenian community.
The real problem was in the constituency of Zahle where the Tashnags could not force their preferred candidate on the list backed by Hariri and Hariri’s movement preferred another Armenian woman candidate, Marie Jeanne Bilezikjian. to run. Most probably she did not get have the support of Armenian voters, especially in the Armenian village of Anjar, where the majority of the Armenian voters in the constituency do actually come from, even though she ended up with over 3800 votes.
Hopefully, after the results are tallied, we will have an idea as to how many Armenians across Lebanon have voted for the candidates of their traditional parties, plus how many Armenians have voted for these new candidates, and how many of them voted altogether for non-Armenian candidates. These things will of course give us a very good picture of what to ponder about where the Armenian community is going as far as integration or assimilation within the larger Lebanese society.
Erbal: Lebanese expats voted for the first time in this election. It seems like Lebanese expats living in the Arab countries will vote more than others, but what about the religious make up of this expat community? Any Armenian voters?
Sanjian: I have a breakdown of the expats who are registered to vote. It’s a small number, something like 84,000 all across the globe. The majority are Christians, unlike the picture in Lebanon, where we have a Muslim majority. Among those 84,000 registered expat voters, almost 2000 were Armenians. Moreover, in the last moment, Armenian parties encouraged those who did not register actually to go to Lebanon and vote in Sunday’s election. This is now called political tourism. This cluster is probably not as large as those who were flown in for the 2009 elections.
Erbal: How was the expat vote counted? Did it get distributed to districts?
Sanjian: What happened is as follows: When registered expat voters went to their polling stations, such as the Lebanese consulate in Detroit, a week before Election Day in Lebanon, they checked your name on the list and they gave you the ballot paper of your district in Lebanon. Basically, the expats all voted in the same box, but because they received ballots of different districts, their votes were added to those districts. All of these were taken to Lebanon and kept in the vault of the Central Bank up until May 6th evening. In the next elections, more expats will certainly register to vote.
Erbal: What about the constituencies being trained in this new electoral law? Can you talk a bit about the training of the general Lebanese voters and also Armenian voters in their districts? Because this is a new law, it must have taken time for people to get adjusted. What happened on the ground? Were you able to follow?
Sanjian: Lebanese TV stations carried short public awareness ads for months. They also aired programs where experts explained how votes would be counted, even though all counting was done by computers at the Lebanese Interior Ministry who were in charge of the electoral system.
Erbal: I was more concerned about people getting it right before voting…
Sanjian: There were two ways you could get it right. You could either get it through the TV where they explained to you day to day. There were rallies that the Tashnag party organized in various neighborhoods, where they actually showed the same video to explain to people what and how to do. There were pictures of the candidates on the ballots and their names were written.
Erbal: How do the Armenian parties form their candidate lists? Is there any difference among Armenian parties in terms of designating/ choosing their candidates? I am trying to ask the degree of intra-party democracy in each of these traditional Armenian parties.
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: I wondered more about intra-Tashnag. How Tashnags are choosing their own candidates?
Sanjian: The party leadership chooses its own candidates. Usually, the Tashnag party, over the years, as a strategy, nominates one, or at most two, party members and the rest of the seats are given to public figures in the community who follow the party’s instructions when voting in parliament.
Erbal: So the party base, the members do not vote; there is no democratic voting at the base in that sense…
Sanjian: Among Lebanese parties, only the Free Patriotic Union did that, but then they also had to change their candidates because in certain districts they had to make alliances. There are a number of political bosses in each Lebanese party and they decide on who the candidates would be. Among the Armenian parties it’s the party leadership which decides who’s going to be a candidate.
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. I don’t think they had large groups of supporters among the Armenians who voted for them. But, perhaps individual Armenians who dislike the Armenian political parties opted to vote for them as vehicles of change, not only inside the community but more in the country. Probably that’s the most these independent Armenian candidates can do. I don’t know whether these independent candidates were able to reach a new generation of Armenians who live away from traditional Armenian neighborhoods. In the end, it would be very interesting to see the detailed results to figure out how many preferential votes these independent candidates got from Armenians.
Erbal: So, in none of the Armenian parties the grassroots are decisive in the party candidacy process.
Sanjian: Not that I know of. There is no formal procedure at all. Basically, the candidates are first presented to the community by an announcement in the paper or through the official party communiqués.
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 still think the existence or the lack thereof such bottom-up, deliberative measure tells something about the health of the intra-party procedures, the democratic commitments, at least of the party bases, along with the party leadership.
Sanjian: There is no indication in any of their publications of these [deliberative measures] going on. I have not heard of such a process from friends who are members of the parties, I don’t assume there is formal process, and I also doubt there is such an informal process.
Moreover, if you divide the number of candidates by the number of the seats allocated to each community [across Lebanon], the Armenian community has the lowest ratio, that is less than three people running per seat [pre-allocated to the Armenian communities], while among the other communities, the ratio is 4, 5 and sometimes close to 6. There are very few Armenian mavericks, who wish to run for elections. This process remains mostly delegated to Armenian political parties. But, as I said, this is also partly because most Armenian people do not think this is important. Instead, they spend their energy on other Armenian community issues, rather than being the representative of the community in the country’s national assembly.
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 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.
Photo: Lebanese Armenian Deputy Paula Yacoubian