We stand on the brink of national extinction as of today, with the death of Lebanon imminent. The flaws and failure of our system have become too immense to ignore. We are at a crossroad here; do we exit stage? Or do we hold on to what we have (which is nothing)? The idea of this paper was conceived without Lebanon being on my mind, with my main topic tackling the pros and cons of political parties and their organizations, however, the schism in the country forces one to ponder alternatives. I will not make Lebanon the focal point of the paper. Rather, I will address the issue of whether a two-party system or a multi-party system is better for a country. Before delving further into the issue at hand, it is perhaps best we lay down some fundamental facts that will be discussed later on.
So, what are political parties and what do they do? According to the National Democratic Institute, political parties are critical democratic institutions. Parties compete in elections to provide people with an option in governance and they will keep governments accountable when in opposition. People are exercising their basic democratic rights when they join political parties, volunteer their time, donate money, and vote for their representatives (NDI, 2020). With that being said, what is the difference between a two-party and multi-party system? A two-party system is one in which the political landscape is consistently dominated by two major political parties. One of the two parties normally retains a majority in the legislature at any given time and is known as the majority or ruling party, whereas the other is known as the minority or opposition party. Think about the United States and the two ruling parties there: Republicans and Democrats. These two parties fight over control all the time, with the victor ending with a president every four years.
In comparison, what is a multi-party system? How does it function? A multi-party system is a political system in which multiple political parties from various political spectrums compete in national elections, each with the ability to control government offices either individually or in coalition. In parliamentary systems, multi-party systems are more prevalent than in presidential systems. Think Lebanon, we have a parliamentary system and have many parties competing for seats in parliament. Digging deeper, we see that these parties do not run independently, but have formed into liaisons. What we have here, are two major alliances competing for majority: March 8 & March 14 coalitions. So, with that being said, what are some different key elements in these two systems?
Two Party System v. Multi-Party System
A two-party system is a lot more straightforward than a multi-party system. It is more direct than discrete. It gives clear ideological choice for citizens involved. Historically, these parties are either left or right. So, whatever seems more appealing to an individual, gives them an easier choice. However, that also does not necessarily mean that it is a good thing. What if I do not agree with the philosophies of either party? What If I do not identify as being right nor left? This creates a tricky situation where our options are a lot more limited. The United States for example, should have had another candidate in both 2016 and 2020, because arguably all nominees involved were politically inadequate, so most Americans commonly felt obligated to choose the lesser of two evils. Furthermore, the two-party system is considered to foster governmental stability because one party can gain a majority and take control of the state, while in multiparty states, the creation of a government cabinet is complicated by problems such as forming coalitions of strong enough parties to manage the majority (Britannica, 2020). Stability is a characteristic of a two-party system, as opposed to the multi-party system. However, the recent buildup of tension since Trump came into charge has been shifting the stones around. The Democrats, disgruntled with the narrow defeat in 2016, began piling more and more pressure on the Trump administration, something made easier by the polarizing nature of Trump’s character and behavior. The culmination of this rift between republicans and democrats came in the first month of 2021. Republicans broke into the capitol, screaming about how the election was stolen. This begs the question of whether splitting a nation in half into two distinct parties is a good idea. Could it be a ticking bomb?
I believe that it is worth noting that the United States is different than other countries given its history and highly diverse population. The disadvantages or complexities are that two-party structures often result in inconsistencies in the country’s governing framework. There is more centrism in the country than in the agendas or initiatives proposed by the two dominant parties, which is normally the case when coalitions must be formed to form a government because their platforms are so dissimilar (ConnectUS, 2019). This two-way decision on what people support limits their individuality, let us say I am a republican who supports abortion, it would be hard to align my personal virtues and morals with my party’s. We all have different and unique modes of thinking, thus dissecting our ideologies and philosophies into major broad decisions makes individuality diminish.
The multi-party is unique in that it allows people of all backgrounds and ideologies to be democratically represented in the state. Although that can prove to be troublesome at times, it also offers more dialogue and more understanding. Due to high competition, electoral transparency becomes more apparent in multi-party systems. This high competition ensures a fairer and more democratic rule, preventing future tyrannies or dictatorships from forming. Also, it raises public awareness of the country’s political work because smaller groups have the right and means to be represented, which makes people more interested in getting involved. Furthermore, it ensures that the electorate is well represented. Another emerging factor that comes from a multi-party system is accountability, given there are many opposing parties that do not necessarily share similar views. Thus, the ruling party in any given country is (ideally) always criticized and held accountable. The whole idea of having multiple parties gives the people the sense of choice (just an illusion?), offering multiple ways for them to be represented, thus countries that have many parties often have them representing people who otherwise would have been marginalized within the community.
Now, it is worth noting again that we live in a multi-party system, so any criticism I can subjugate the system to, it comes from personal experience. Sure, the illusion of choice is nice. But let us not get dragged into idealist and utopian wonderlands. It would be naïve to assume that over-representation is a good thing, if anything, it leads to more and more conflict. When we start marginalizing people and dividing them according to political/sectarian affiliations, we start to see the essence of the problem. In a country like Lebanon, tensions have existed here before the country was even officially a country! So, polarizing the population and forcing people to take sides and pick a political faction does the country wonders; a fifteen-year civil war. Sure, other countries have multi-party systems and are reasonably more stable than we are, but we are stuck in this country, so personal experience becomes the grandeur here. Having a diversified population is okay but forcing these people to diverge and look out for only their own pushes sectarian agenda. In the words of Kamal Salibi, we are a house of many mansions. How can we hope to get all these people to work together? Is a two-party system the solution here?
More or less, we are an embodiment of a two-party system as of late. The extreme frictions over the last few years or so, has left the country split in half. As mentioned before, political parties here have formed alliances in order to secure majority. Whomever rules, rules. There is a national irrational division amongst the Lebanese. Fawwaz Traboulsi frames Lebanese communities as “politicized religious sects” and as “historical products, rather than ahistorical essences rooted in religious differences or as mere entities.” Traboulsi goes on later to mention that pre-1920, Lebanon had no “natural” or “historical” borders, rather what we see today is the result of a British-Franco duopoly over the Middle East region. We are spoon fed the idea of a Golden age in Lebanon pre-1975 that inaccurately portrays a country flawless and embroiled in trade and services and to me that is so far away from the bitter truth that it this country’s history. The war itself is controversial as there is no common ground on what caused it and whether really ended (we had a ceasefire, not proper peace talks)? Tamirace Fakhoury comments about this saying: “Lacking straightforward explanations for the war’s origins, scholars have vociferously debated the primary factors that led to its eruption. A recurrent discussion is whether or not the consociational system hastened the 1975 war.” A look into sectarianism was essential especially given the circumstances we are going through today. To attempt understand the complexity of the situation today, it was important to look and back to the 19th century rule of the Ottomans and then the French. Understanding this power-sharing system that is halting the formation of a government as we speak is vital as well. I learned that it has always been about who gets what and how much. If one word comes to mind it is definitely “tribalism”, since the advent of Lebanon, the events of 1860 to 1920 to 1975. It is either that one sect or confession wanted a bigger piece of slice or that someone else was getting more than them.
However, this provides a dilemma. Can we really co-exist without sectarianism or do we need it? Up until the war, the primary assumption was that we need it for checks-and-balances, but then things changed according to Max Weiss as he wrote: “from about the 1980s, at the peak of the Lebanese civil war, a number of historians and social scientists began to rethink the nature of Lebanese sectarianism, aiming to show the negative impact that sectarianism was having and had had on Lebanese society. In this conception, sectarianism was a failure of the diverse cultures and communities in Lebanon to coexist, to coalesce, and to be tolerant of one another.”
So, how did the multi-party system pan out in Lebanon? Well, a failure to say the least. However, that does not stem from the nature of the system, rather from the nature of Lebanon. We are ruled by the militias formed in the civil war and their leaders to this day. Sectarian tension and the fear of another civil war keeps the masses in check and in line. This has ensured the continuance of this rule throughout the years. The many parties in this country know they can secure votes from their followers every other year just by doing the bare minimum, keeping us in a loop of futile events. The corruption and incompetence of this system has brought us unto this collapse we see today. This country is not on the verge of collapse; it has completely failed.
With the defeat of this system evident, what is the solution? Do we dissolve this system we have? Do we separate state and religion? Do we embark on a federalist fairytale? Do we split the country in half? How do we satisfy all sides if everyone feels they are being marginalized? Do you secure the rights of the majorities, or do we abide by the confessionalism system and give everyone a piece of the pie? Whatever your thoughts are, it is a double-edged sword in Lebanon, as no solution satisfies all parties.
The established political caste will not give up their power for the people, or for anyone. The last two years have been monumental in Lebanese history, yet we saw no change. We saw a revolution during the end of 2019. We saw the economic collapse unravel right before our eyes. We lived through a year of lockdowns and imposed curfews. We all stood in awe as half of Beirut was blown apart because of government incompetence. We all lost our money. What changed? Nothing. Will anything ever change? Something has always got to give. No rule in the history of man survived the test of time.
The luxury of choice is something that we should never take for granted. A Multi-party system offers the people a chance to truly express themselves. It offers a voice for the voiceless. Such a system could prove efficient in big countries that are well-run. However, in the case of Lebanon, it has failed miserably. A Two-party system offers a more stable political environment. Parties in two-party systems are better able to get their proposals passed into the legislature because they have a strong majority of members. Having a two-party system can enable the people in charge to get change done faster and without much hassle. Multi-party structures, on the other hand, operate by achieving a balance of interests and achieving consensus on almost every issue. This puts the parties in a position where they are more likely to have conflicts of interest. This often leads to political deadlocks. Although recognizing that the structure of the system is not the primary cause of political turmoil, it is clear that the two-party system of the states brings far more political stability than the multi-party, confessional-based system of Lebanon. The multi-party system has allowed us to spiral into the ground below, as interests, corruption, clientelism, sectarianism all eroded into this country…
- Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia (2020, May 19). Two-party system. Encyclopedia Britannica.
- Chief, E. I. (2019, May 07). 16 Advantages and Disadvantages of the Two Party System. Retrieved from here.
- Fakhoury, T. (2014). DEBATING LEBANON’S POWER-SHARING MODEL: AN OPPORTUNITY OR AN IMPASSE FOR DEMOCRATIZATION STUDIES IN THE MIDDLE EAST? The Arab Studies Journal, 22(1), 230-255. Retrieved June 6, 2021, from here.
- Holler, M. J. (1987). An Introduction into the Logic of Multiparty Systems. Retrieved from here.
- NDI. (2020). Political Parties. Retrieved from here.
- Salibi, K. (1971). The Lebanese Identity. Journal of Contemporary History, 6(1), 76-86. Retrieved June 6, 2021, from here.
- The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2020). two-party system | Features, Advantages, & Problems. Retrieved from here.
- Traboulsi, F. (2012). A History of Modern Lebanon. London: Pluto Press. doi:10.2307/j.ctt183p4f5
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