Political Parties and Electoral Systems in Lebanon and Israel: Interactive Reinforcement

Hassan Krayem
American University of Beirut

The comparisons between Israel's and Lebanon's political party systems are interesting for various reasons. First of all, both systems are similar in that they are considered multiparty systems. This initial observation is, however, misleading because the two systems are genuinely different. In Israel, political parties have dominated the political process, and the smaller parties have had significant roles, including representation of various ethnic as well as national political views. In Lebanon, the role of political parties has been weak, specifically in the tendency for traditional and neotraditional forces to be emphasized while the role of political parties is being undermined by these forces.

In Israel, the strong role of political parties was and is being reinforced by an electoral system which is based on proportional representation and one national electoral district, thus allowing for different parties, no matter how small they might be, to get some representation. In Lebanon, the weak role of political parties is being reinforced by a different electoral system, one that is based on simple majority and on small to medium electoral districts.

The Lebanese Case:

Lebanon has had a multiparty system since the 1920s. But it was not until the late 1930s that political parties began gaining importance and playing some political role in mobilizing the population and influencing the political process in Lebanon, In the early 1940s, two blocks competed against each other; the Constitutional Block, led by President Beshara Al-Khouri, and e rival National Block, led by Emile Eddeh who was supported by France. After indepedence, another dualism emerged in the late 1950s between the Shehabist current, which was not organized in any cohesive movement but was an expression of loyalty to then President Fouad Chehab and his policies, and the Triple Alliance of Raymond Eddeh of the National Block, Pierre Gemmayyel of the Kataeb Party, and previous President Kameel Shamoun, leader of the National Liberal Party. At the eve and during the first years of the Civil War (1975-76), the country was divided between two coalitions of political forces and parties. On one side Was the Lebanese National Movement, a leftist and nationalist alliance led by Kamal Junblatt, leader of the Progressive Socialist Party, on the other side the Lebanese Front, a right-wing conservative alliance, led by the Kataeb Party. After 1982, many political parties, on both sides, were transformed into militias as the militarization of the parties eventually led to the parties being controlled by their military wings. As a result, political par-ties lost their democratic representative authority, and a large gulf developed between them and the public they purported to represent. The relatively weak political role of the political parties in Lebanon is attributed to the structure of these parties, which remained highly confessional and depended heavily on individual traditional communal leaders. This is reflected through the role of individual leaders such as Shamoun, Eddeh, Gemmayyel, and Junblatt instead of their parties as independent institutions..

Table (1) shows the composition of the major parties in Lebanon today and their confessional, regional, parliamentary and ideological characteristics. The political life in Lebanon has never been organized around the role of political parties. The pre-Civil War era (1943-1975) was characterized by the inability of the state institutions, especially the parliament, to allow for greater party representation, especially of secular parties (see table 2). Nevertheless, the 1968 elections saw the highest percentage of party members winning parliamentary seats, a maximum of 30%. In the 1972 elections, this percentage dropped to 28.2%, and in the 1992 elections, it rose slightly to about 30.5%.

Table 1: The Major Political Parties in Lebanon

Political Party Representation in 1992 Parliament Confessional Base and Region Ideological Orientation
Progressive Socialist Party 4 Deputies Mount Lebanon (Chouf and Alley) Druze Socialist Member of International Socialism
Social National Syrian Party 6 Deputies Secular with heavy representation in the Greek Orthodox Community (Mount Lebanon Koura in the north, and Beirut) National "Syrian Nationalism"
Baath Party (pro-Syrian) 2 Deputies Secular National "Arab Nationalism"
Amal Movement 4 Deputies South Lebanon "Shia'a" Sectarian
Hizbollah 8 Deputies South Lebanon & Biqa'a Shia'a Islamic fundamentalism
Lebanese Communist Party


Secular, National Marxist
Kataeb Party


Mainly Maronites Mount Lebanon "Kisinvan, Mattn, and Beirut" Conservative rightwing
National Liberal Party ---------- Mainly Maronite "Chouf & Beirut" Conservative rightwing
National Block --------- Mainly Maronite "Jbeil & Beirut" Liberal; Lebanese Nationalism
Tashnaq Party 3 Deputies Armenians "Mount Lebanon & Beirut" Armenian Nationalist
Islamic Jama'a 3 Deputies Sunni "Beirut & Sidon" Islamic fundamentalism
Islamic Philanthropic Projects Association (Ahbash) 1 Deputy Sunni "Beirut" Liberal Islamist
Wa'ad Party 2 Deputies Mainly Maronite "Beirut, Zahleh, Mettn" Liberal Ex-Militia
Hanshaq Party 1 Deputy Armenian "Beirut" Armenian Nationalist
Popular Nasserist Organization 1 Deputy Sunni "Sidon" Arab Nationalist
Lebanese Forces ---------- Mainly Maronite "Beirut, Mount Lebanon, North" Militia "Dissolved by the state"
Democratic Socialist Party ---------- South Lebanon Traditional, sectarian, feudal heritage
Small local parties 4 Deputies Very narrowly based Limited local representation
Total: 39 precentage 39/128 = 30.5%

Table 2: Political Parties Representaiton in the Lebanese Parliament 1951-1972


1951 1953 1957 1960 1964 1968 1972
Tashnak Party 2 2 3 4 4 3 2
Progressive Socialist Party 3 2-4 3 6 6 5 4
Kataeb Party (Phalange) 3 1 1 6 4 9 7
National Block 2 3 4 6 2 5 3
National Liberal Party




4-5 6 8 7
Social National Syrian Party







Baa'th (pro Iraq)







Nasserite Organization














Democratic Socialist party







Total 10 8-10 12 27-28 22 30 28

Source: Adopted from Political Parties of the Middle East and North Africa, Frank Tachau, ed. (Green Wood Press, West Port, Connecticut, 1994), pp.301-302.

In Lebanon, the sectarian element remains the strongest determining factor of party politics. Most parties and political movements, either in ideology or in practice, are associated with a single sect or an ethnic group (especially the Armenians). The secular parties have not been able yet to play a national role, and the trend in recent years, especially in the post-Civil War period (1990-present), has been the marginalization of these parties, as is the case with leftist parties. The trend has also been for other parties to become vehicles for rising militia forces and leaders.1 The electoral systems in Lebanon have contributed to the marginalization and weakening of the political parties in many different ways:

First, they encouraged local representation and emphasized a specific narrow relation between the populace and the deputies, a patron-client relationship where the deputy is expected to deliver services in exchange for their loyalty.

Second, it weakened the legislative as well as the monitoring functions of the parliament. The Lebanese parliament, for example, has never had a vote of no confidence against any government or any one minister.

Third, the base of representation was limited to traditional families. Until the 1992 elections, all members of the various parliaments came from about 200 families.

Fourth, participation in parliamentary elections has been consistently low since independence (1943).

Year Percentage of Participation
1943 52.00%
1947 61.00%
1951 56.00%
1953 53.60%
1957 49.87%
1960 49.40%
1964 48.24%
1968 50.61%
1972 54.24%
1992 30.34%

Source: Al-Intikhabat Al Niabiah 1861-1992: Al-Qwaneen - Al-Nataej. (University Institute for Studies, Beirut 1992).

Moreover, the participation has been consistently stronger in the peripheral rural areas than in the urban centers, which indicates the strength of the traditional basis of representation.

Fifth, there is lack of stability in legislation. For the past twelve parliaments, ten different laws or amendments to the laws were introduced. The only period that experienced stability was the period between 1960-1972. In general, between 1922-1951 the electoral districts were divided into five to nine districts; then, between 1953-1972, they were again divided into 26 to 33 smaller districts.. In 1992, an exceptional inconsistent division took place and there were 12 different districts, some of which were relatively large and others were relatively small. In 1996, the new law made one exception to the electoral districts of the administrative provinces (Mohafazat): Mount Lebanon was divided into six different electoral districts, thus raising the number to 10 electoral districts instead of 5.

Sixth, the more important observation is that the political party representation in the parliament has changed in terms of sectarian affiliation. In the pre-Civil War period, the "Christian" political par- ties were strongly represented, relative to the unorganized and under-represented "Islamic" political forces. The Islamic community was influenced by Pan-Arabism, and this was reflected in the general mass movements and dominant political currents, especially Nasserism. In the post-Civil-War period, the "Islamic" parties became well represented and well organized, in contrast to the unoraganized and under-rep resented political movements and currents in the "Christian" areas, especially tile phenomenon of Aounism, a movement of supporters of General Michael Aoun, the previous army leader and head of the transitional military government.

Seventh, as shown in tables 1 & 2, the Shia'a political role and representation passed through stages of silent masses to ascending forces to dominant forces represented by Amal and Hizbollah, especially since the mid-1980s.

The Israeli Case:

In Israel, political parties have played a major role in Israeli politics. Israeli parties have undergone a gradual process of change and consolidation, through electoral alignments and realignments, party splits and mergers. The party system has developed into a more competitive system since 1965, which led to the consolidation of right-wing and left-wing parties. In 1977, the first major turnover took place as Likud came to power after more than 29 years of Labor domination. The party system passed through a crisis in the second half of the 1980s, as an impasse between Likud and Labor took place. But since 1990, the competitive system resumed its functioning resulting in two turnovers; one in 1992 with the formation of the Labor government, and the late 1996 turnover with the formation of the Likud government.2

The maintenance and development of a pluralistic multiparty system in Israel was possible and reinforced, however, by an electoral system of proportional representation which offered opportunities for party survival and strengthened party organizations.3

Table 4 shows the development of party representation in the various Israeli elections since 1949.

Table 4: Political Parties Representation in the Various Israeli Elections

Election Years Arabs & Communists Right Left Religious Center
1949 First Knesset 4 Maki
2 Arabs
Herut 14 Mapai 46 Mapam 19 Single List 16 General Zionist 7
Progressive Party 5
Others 7


Total 6 Total 14 Total 65 Total 16 Total 19
1951 5 Maki
5 Arabs allied with Mapai
Herut 8 Mapai 45
Mapam 15
NRP 10 (National Religious Party)
Agudat 5
General Zionists 20
Progressive party 4
Others 3


Total 10 Total 8 Total 60 Total 15 Total 27
1955 6 Communist
5 Arabs allied with Mapai
Herut 15 Mapai 40
Mapam 9
(Ahd. Av.) 10
NRP 11
Agudat 6
General Zionists 13
Progressive Party 5


Total 11 Total 15 Total 59 Total 17 Total 18
1959 3 Communist
5 Arabs allied with Mapai
Herut 17 Mapai 47
Mapam 9
(Ahd. Av. ) 7
NRP 12
Agudat 6
General Zionists
8 Progressive Party 6


Total 8 Total 17 Total 63 Total 18 Total 14
1961 5 Communist
4 Arabs allied with Mapai
Herut 17 Mapai 42
Mapam 9
(Ahd.Av.) 8
NRP 12
Agudat 4 & Poalei-Agudat 2
Liberals 17


Total 9 Total 17 Total 59 Total 18 Total 17
1965 4 Communist
4 Arabs allied with Mapai
Gahel single List Herut & Liberals 26 Labor Alignment 45 (Mapai & Ahd. Av.)
Mapam 8 Rafi 10
NRP 11
Agudat 4
PaoleiAgudat 2
Independent Liberals 5
Others 1


Total 8 Total 26 Total 63 Total 17 Total 6
1969 4 communist
4 Arab allied with Mapai
Gahel 26 Labor Alignment (Mapai & Ahd. Av & Mapam & Rafi) 56 NRP 12
Agudatt 4
Independent Liberals 4
Others 8


Total 8 Total 26 Total 56 Paolei 2 Total 18 Total 12
1973 5 Communists
(4 Rakah, 1 Maki)
3 Arabs
Likud 39 Labor Alignment 51
Ratz 3
NRP 10
Agudatt 5
Independent Liberals 4


Total 8 Total 39 Total 54 Total 15 Total 4
1977 5 Communist
1 Arab
2 shili
Likud 43 Labor alignment 32
Shinuti 15
Ratz 1
NRP 12
Agudatt 4
Paolei-Agudatt 1
Independent Liberals 1
Others 3


Total 8 Total 43 Total 48 Total 17 Total 4
1981 4 Communist
2 Shinuti
Likud 48 Labor alignment 47
Ratz 1
Agudatt & Paolei-Agudatt 4
Tami 3
Tehia 3
Others 2


Total 6 Total 48 Total 48 Total 16 Total 2
1984 4 Communist
2 Progressive Lists
Likud 41 Labor alignment 44
Ratz 3
Shinuti 3
Agudatt 2
Tehia 5
Kach 1
Shas 4
Tami 1
Morasha 2
Others 4


Total 6 Total 41 Total 50 Total 19 Total 4
1988 4 Communists
1 Democratic Arab
Likud 40
Moledet 2
Tsomet 2
Labor Alignment 39
Mapam 3
Ratz 5
Shinuti 2
Tehia 3
Degel Hatora 2
Agudatt 5
Shas 6



Total 6 Total 44 Total 49 Total 21


1992 3 Communists
2 Arab
Likud 32
Moledet 3
Tsomet 8
Labor Party 44
Meretz 12
Agudat 4
Shas 6



Total 5 Total 43 Total 56 Total 16


1996 5 Communist
4 Arabs
Likud & Tosmet 32
Moledet 2
Labor Party 34
Meretz 9
Shas 10
Agudatt 4
Third Way 4
Russian Immigrants Ysrael Ba- Alyia 7


Total 9 Total 34 Total 43 Total 23 Total 11

Sources: Political parties of the Middle East and North Africa, Op. Cit., p.192-358. Politics and government in the Middle East and North Africa, Tarek Y. Ismael and Jacqueline S. Ismael, eds., (Florida International University Press Miami, 1992), pp. 270-271.
For 1996 elections results: Time Magazine, June 10, 1996 pp. 16-25.

Note: In 1988, the two major parties agreed to change the minimum necessary quota of each party votes to get represented from 1% to 1.5% in order to decrease the number of small political parties and the number of electoral lists. In 1996, the voters directly elected the Prime Minister, a reform that was introduced to strengthen the position of the Prime Minister.

The number of parties or electoral lists represented in the Israeli Knesset has been relatively and consistently high, as illustrated by the following table:

Election year Number of Lists Number of Parties
1949 12 15
1951 15 15
1955 12 14
1959 12 14
1961 11 12
1965 13 15
1969 13 15
1973 9 14
1977 11 15
1981 10 13
1984 15 21
1988 15 17
1992 10 13
1996 11 12

Source: 1994, Political Parties in the ME adn N.Africa, Op. Cit., p.200.

Looking at the map of Israeli elections since 1949, one can observe several points:

First, the political polarization is highly intensified and it has steadily and consistently increased since 1973. Such a concluding remark is based on several indicators

  1. Since 1973, the parties of the center have almost completely vanished. Polarization has taken place between the right allied with the religious parties on one side and the left on the other (Labor and Ratz, and later Meretz).
  2. This polarization has revolved around major national issues, at the forefront of which is the Arab- Israeli conflict and peace process.
  3. The 1996 direct election of the Prime Minister was a very close election that divided the voters almost equally between the two major blocks (50,4% for Natanyahu and 49.5% for Peres). It should be noted, however, that the 1996 election led to the emergence of two parties that can be considered centrist. The brand-new immigrants'- rights party, Ysrael Ba-Alyhia, with 7 seats and the Third Way with 4 seats, a party which broke with Labor in opposition to withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

Second, the 1996 elections reversed a short tendency that was reflected in the 1992 elections with the advancement of the Labor party and Meretz and the loss of Likud. These latest elections reconfirmed the long term tendency of a gradual movement of the Israeli society and political parties toward the right, with all its implications internally and regionally.

Third, the increase of the religious parties' seats, from 16 to 23 seats, in the 1996 elections was a testimony of the above-mentioned tendency which occurred after the latest reform of the elections law allowing for the direct election of the Prime Minister. The twovotes system ended up increasing the strength of the small parties, especially the religious ones, as it allowed them to vote for their favorable parties, while, and most importantly, being able to vote at the same time for the Prime Minister.

Fourth, the increasing tendency to vote for ethnic representation was evident, not only because of the doubling of Arab representation, but also because of the success of the Russian immigrants and of Shas, the party which represents Eastern Jews. 4

Fifth, since the 1970s, the changes that occurred to political parties representation was associated with the rise of a new political force in Israeli society, that of the Sephardim, non-European Jews who came mainly from North Africa and Asia.

Sixth, for the above mentioned reasons, the strength of the two major parties decreased to its lowest point in the history of Knesset elections. Likud and Labor have a total number of only 66 members in the present Knesset.

To conclude, the already weak party system in Lebanon has been further undermined by an electoral system that maintains and reinforces the traditional basis of representation. This is leading to a state of crisis characterized by the lack of an internal political basis of representation and fragile political processes..

The strong Israeli party system, developed prior to the formation of the state of Israel, has been further strengthened by an electoral system that maintains and promotes the dominant role of political parties, including smaller ones. This is leading to a fragmented representation, weaker dominant par- ties, and a stalemate in decision-making on national issues, especially with regards to Arab-Israeli negotiations.

1 The latest results of the on going parliamentary elections, especially the election results of the North province have clearly supported such conclusion as all party candidates of different ideological orientations have lost to the traditional families and forces. Back

2 For further details on the Israeli party system see, Tachau, Frank (ed.), Political Parties of the Middle East and North Africa [Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut, 1994] pp. 198-258. Back

3 On the electoral system see, Arian Asher , Politics in Israel: The Second Generation [Chatham House Publishers, Inc., New Jersey, 1985] pp. 120-132. Back

4 On ethnic vote see, Ibid., pp. 139-144. Also Elazar, Daniel J. and Sandier, Shmucl (eds.) Israel At the Polls: 1992 [ The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Rowman & Littlefild Publisher, Inc.. Boston, 1995] Esp. chs. 3-5. Back

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