A Historical perspective
A Historical perspective
The parliament’s major functions are to elect the President of the Republic (one six-year term), approve the cabinet and approve laws and expenditures.
The Armenians make up two of the eighteen religious sects in Lebanon. The Armenian Apostolics and Catholics are recognized as two individual sects, while the Armenian Protestants, even though outnumbering the Arab Protestants, are grouped with them under one sect. This system is primarily based on the old “Millet” system during the Ottoman Empire which had governed the Levant prior to World War I. Armenians in Lebanon live primarily in Beirut (East and West), Bourdj Hammoud (Metn district) and Anjar (Bekaa District). There are smaller pockets of Armenians in other towns such as Jounieh, Zahle and Tripoli. After the Civil War (1975-1990) a significant number of Armenians moved from West Beirut to East Beirut. Haigazian University, supported by Armenian Missionary Association of America (AMAA) and the Armenian Evangelical College (owned by the First Armenian Evangelical Church) are still located in the heart of West Beirut.
Allocation of Parliamentary Seats
In elections held between 1932 and 1972 (the parliament of 1972 being the last one prior to the Lebanese Civil War), seats were apportioned between Christians and Muslims at a 6:5 ratio. The Taif Accord (1989) reached among 63 Lebanese parliamentarians ended the Civil War (1975-1990), reapportioned the parliament to provide equal representation of Christians and Muslims, with each electing 64 of the 128 deputies. This ratio more closely reflected the demographics of the country. The constitutional changes introduced in Taif–a resort town on the Red Sea in Saudi Arabia–were meant to balance what the Lebanese Muslims considered the excessive powers of Christian Maronites in Lebanon’s political system. The changes also curtailed the power of the presidency (allocated to Maronites) and shifted it to the Sunni prime minister.
All members of parliament are elected by so-called universal suffrage, thus forcing politicians to seek support from outside their own religious communities in addition to their co-religionists. According to the Taif Accord, the seats are allocated in the following manner. Christians: 64 (Maronite, 34; Greek Orthodox, 14: Greek Catholic, 8; Armenian Orthodox, 5; Armenian Catholic, 1; Protestant, 1; other Christians 1). Muslims;: 64 (Sunni, 27; Shiite, 27; Alawite, 2; Druze, 8).
The system of multi-member constituencies and “winner-takes-all” has been criticized, over the years, by many groups who claim it is easy to gerrymander the electoral boundaries and it is not a true universal suffrage. There have been calls for a single, country-wide constituency, and phasing out sectarian order as stipulated in the Taif Accord under “the abolition of political confessionalism.” But at this point there has been no agreement on alternative electoral systems, including proportional representation. As long as there is no distinct separation of religion and state it will be hard to achieve true universal suffrage.
Unfortunately, throughout the history of Armenian politics in Lebanon, for most of the elections Armenians have failed to have a united front during elections. The Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF/Tashnag), being the largest and best-organized political party, has more or less dominated the Armenian seats with ARF and pro-ARF independent deputies and represented the Armenians in Lebanon for many years. The ARF ran along strong Lebanese Christian parties in Beirut and Metn districts which were affiliated with the government in power. The ARF generally avoided entanglement in sensitive domestic issues, usually supporting whichever government was in power, since in most governments they also had a ministerial seat. The Armenian Democratic Liberal Party (ADL-Ramgavar) and Social Democratic Hunchagian Party (Hunchag) had fewer representatives than ARF during the Cold War. However the ARF dominance changed after the Taif Accord which altered the political climate and dynamics in Lebanon. The ADL also had a substantial support from independents, and Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) members while the Hunchags had some support from the very small Armenian Communist Party. From 1923 to 1958, conflicts erupted among Armenian political parties (ARF, Hunchags and ADL), struggles that dominated the Armenian Diaspora in Lebanon and elsewhere. The Armenian Apostolic Church disputes and the rift of the ’50s between the Holy See of Cilicia in Antelias and the Holy See of Echmiadzin in Soviet Armenia and the Lebanese Civil War of 1958, created contentious rivalry between ARF on one side and the Hunchags and ADL on the other side. In 1965, after the 50th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide commemorations in Lebanon (organized by the three parties and the three spiritual heads of Apostolic, Catholic and Protestant Churches), the Armenian parties developed cordial relationships which benefited the Armenian community in Lebanon in many ways. The warmer relationship continued during the difficult days of the Civil War and more or less to the present day.
The Armenians were not officially represented in the first two parliaments of Lebanon (1927-1929 and 1929-1932). In the 45 member parliament of 1929, an Armenian Catholic Abdallah Ishak was elected as a Minorities representative. He did not belong to any Armenian political party. In the third parliament (1934-1937) of the 25 seats, one seat was devoted to Armenian Apostolics. Vahram Leilekian was elected sole representative of Armenians among 6 candidates. He became the first elected official Armenian deputy in the Lebanese parliament. Leilekian, an AGBU member, was pro-ADL, pro-Hunchag and an anti-ARF independent. The fourth parliament (1937-1939) consisted of 63 deputies–21 assigned and 42 elected. Emile Edde, president of Lebanon during the French Mandate, assigned Leilekian, while ARF’s candidate Khosrov Tutunjian, another Armenian Apostolic, was elected as deputy among six candidates. The latter was the editor of "Aztarar" newspaper in the ’50s, after he left the ARF.
When Lebanon achieved independence from France in 1943, two popular Lebanese politicians, Bichara Al-Khoury, the Maronite president and Riyad al-Sulh, the Sunni prime minister, devised an unwritten Lebanese National Pact, incorporating into the political system a confessional split stipulating that future Lebanese president be Christian Maronite, the prime minister be Sunni Muslim, the speaker of the parliament be Muslim Shiite and the vice-speaker Greek Orthodox. It was further agreed that the ratio of Christians to Muslims in the parliament would be 6: 5, based on the 1932 census.
The fifth parliament (the first after Independence) with 55 seats (1943-1947) also had two Armenian Apostolic deputies. The ARF and Hunchags entered elections with a united front. Hratch Samuelian from Hunchags and Movses Der-Kaloustian from ARF were elected. In the elections of 1943, Hratchia Shamlian, an AGBU member and a pro-ADL independent, was elected on the list supported by independent-ADL group, in the first ballot. Der-Kaloustian, who had received fewer votes than the ADL candidate in the first ballot, was elected on the second ballot. Der-Kaloustian was a popular politician among Armenian Genocide survivors and served in the parliament for many years (1942-1973 in eight elections) as the ARF representative.
Unfortunately, during the sixth parliamentary elections (1947-1951, 55 seats) Armenians did not participate with a united front. For the two seats, the ARF ran against a coalition of ADL/Hunchags/Communist list and won. Der-Kaloustian and Melkon Hayrabedian (pro-ARF independent), both Armenian Apostolics, were elected from the ARF ticket.
The seventh parliament (1951-1953) which had 77 seats, offered Armenians four seats. Again there was no unified front among Armenians. Der-Kaloustian and Melkon Hayrabedian were elected from the Beirut district. However, in the Metn district, Dikran Tosbat (independent, supported by ADL and Hunchags, editor of "Aik" and "Le Soir" newspapers) beat Vahan Papazian (ARF) by receiving the majority of non-Armenian votes. Joseph Chader was elected as Armenian Catholic deputy. Chader was a Phalange (Kataeb) party leader; he was not from the ARF ranks, but ARF supported him in the elections.
In the eighth parliament (1953-1957, 44 seats) Armenians had 3 seats. Tosbat again won, this time running as a pro-ARF independent candidate along with Der-Kaloustian, the ARF candidate, and Chader the Armenian Catholic, pro-ARF Phalange leader from the Beirut district. It was during this period that polarization among Armenian parties became acute due to the election of Catholicos Zareh I of the Holy See of Cilicia in Antelias.
In 1957 all the four seats dedicated to Armenians were won by candidates on the ARF ticket. Thus the ninth Parliament with 66 seats (1957-1960) included Der-Kaloustian (ARF) Khachig Babikian (ARF), Tosbat (pro-ARF, independents) and Chader (pro-ARF Phalange). These four deputies formed the cornerstone of Armenian Deputies Bloc, which established a common policy about key issues affecting the country and the Armenian community. It is noteworthy to mention the name of Babikian, attorney at law, who rendered tremendous services to the Armenian community and the Holy See of Cilicia in Antelias during a span of over 23 years, seven times as deputy and six times as a minister in various Lebanese governments. He played a major role in reaching the Taif Accord.
In 1960 the Armenian Deputy Bloc expanded to 5 deputies, 4 Apostolics and 1 Catholic. The tenth parliament (1960-1964, 99 seats) included 5 ARF and pro-ARF deputies: Der-Kaloustian (ARF), Babikian (pro-ARF independent), Chader (pro-ARF, vice-president of Phalange party), in addition to two newcomers Souren Khanamirian (pro-ARF independent) and Vartkes Shamlian (ARF). Tosbat, who had issues with ARF and was a staunch supporter of ex-President Camille Chamoun, lost his seat as an independent. Dr. Papken Meguerditchian, a member of the First Armenian Evangelical Church ran as independent for the Protestant seat and lost. The ARF, a strong ally of President Chamoun (1952-1958), welcomed and fully supported the new President, Gen. Fouad Chehab (1958-1964) after the end of the 1958 Civil War.
The 1964, eleventh parliament (1964-1968, 99 seats) had the same five ARF-backed deputies with the exception of Andre Tabourian (pro-ARF independent) replacing Shamlian (ARF). The same 5 deputies were re-elected to the twelfth Parliament (1968-1972, 99 seats)–all sponsored by ARF. In 1968 the Armenian Protestant community tried to have a candidate. However, not being able to join the ARF/Phalange list in Beirut, Yervant Abajian (independent, member of First Armenian Evangelical Church of Beirut) withdrew his candidacy but Edward Loshkhajian (independent and also a member of the First Armenian Evangelical Church) lost to an Arab Protestant candidate who was on the ARF/Phalange-sponsored ticket.
In 1972 ARF list was again victorious with the lion’s share in the thirteenth parliamentary elections which had six Armenian seats. The parliament which was in power for about 20 years (1972-1991), due to the Lebanese Civil War, had 99 seats. The ARF list won all 4 seats assigned to Armenian Apostolics, and one for Armenian Catholics. The Protestant seat was taken by Dr. Antranik Manoogian (independent). He was also a member of the Armenian Deputies Bloc. The Armenian Bloc included Khanamiriian (pro-ARF), Babikian (pro-ARF), Dr. Melkon Eblighatian (ARF), Ara Yerevanian (pro-ARF)–all four Apostolic, plus Chader (pro-ARF, Phalange) and Manougian (Protestant, independent). The parliament had a 20-year life span due to the Lebanese Civil War (1975 to 1990). Manoogian, a member of the First Armenian Evangelical Church of Beirut and director of the National Psychiatric Hospital was the first Armenian Protestant (Evangelical) deputy to be elected to the Lebanese Parliament. Chader, the long-time Catholic representative, passed away in 1977.
The Armenian Deputies Bloc remained neutral during the Civil War which pitted the Christian militias against the Muslim and Palestinian militias. They tried to facilitate the peace process between the warring parties during the 15 year conflict. They won absolute high marks by all the Lebanese for their loyalty to the country, and their aspirations for unity, peace and economic recovery. In the immediate post-Civil War period (1991-1992) deceased and resigned members of parliament were replaced by appointed deputies by the Council of Ministers. This was considered the fourteenth parliament and was transitional in nature. It had 108 members. Yerevanian, having resigned, was replaced by ARF member Shahe Barsoumian, while Phalange party member Antoine Joseph Chader was appointed as Armenian Catholic deputy, although the ARF had favored Hagop Choukadarian (pro-ARF independent) who was a minister in the government. The other deputies were Babikian, Khanamirian, Eblighatian, all pro-ARF independents, and Manoogian (Protestant, independent)
The Taif Accord, agreed by Lebanese politicians, set a fixed percentage to the Armenian representation at 4.7%. It translated into the allocation of six seats to the Armenian community out of the new parliament of 128 seats. The Protestant seat was assigned to all Protestants, which meant if an Armenian Protestant was elected, the number of Armenian deputies would be elevated to seven (5.5% representation in Parliament for Armenians). The Taif Accord also made a considerable impact on the political affiliation of Armenian MPs in the post 1992 parliaments. In the last parliament in 1972–before the Taif Accord–majority of Armenian MPs were either affiliated with the ARF or were pro-ARF independents. In the post-Taif era, a plurality of affiliation was observed in the Lebanese-Armenian MPs as the Hunchags, ADL and independent candidates were also elected as a joint bloc with ARF or running against ARF candidates.
The fifteenth Parliament (1992-1996 with 128 seats) resulted in seven seats for Armenian deputies. The ARF and Hunchags entered elections with joint forces. In the election of 1992 the ARF-Hunchag joint list of candidates that won in Beirut district included three Apostolics–Babikian (pro-ARF, independent), Yeghia Djeredjian (Hunchag), Khanamirian (pro-ARF, independent ), Hagop Choukhadarian (pro-ARF, independent, Catholic) and Dr. Nourijan Demirdjian (independent, Protestant), in addition to ARF member Barsoumian (Apostolic) in Metn. George Kassardji presented himself as an independent and beat the ARF candidate Vartkes Khoshian. The ADL boycotted the election, along with the majority of Lebanese Christians.
In the 1996 elections the Armenian parties presented a unified front in a coalition list with Prime Minister Rafic Hariri. Seven deputies were elected for the sixteenth parliament (1996-2000, 128 seats). The Apostolic seats were filled by Babikian (pro-ARF), Djeredjian (Hunchag), Kassarji (pro-ARF), Hagop Demirdjian (AGBU member, pro-ADL) and Sebouh Hovnanian (ARF). Choukadarian (pro-ARF) was the Catholic candidate while Apraham Dedeyan (independent) occupied the Protestant seat.
Babikian died before his term was over. The government decreed partial elections which were not held as the Armenians ARF, ADL, and Hunchags agreed to have Tabourian running as their sole candidate. He was considered legally elected MP for the remaining term of Babikian.
For the seventeenth parliamentary elections in 2000 (2000-2005, 128 seats), Beirut was divided into 3 districts. In two of three districts Armenians did not have a high percentage of voters. Prime Minister Hariri demanded all Armenian candidates elected on his list, including ARF candidates, form subsequent to elections a unified parliamentary bloc. This would have practically dissolved the Armenian Deputies Bloc. Hariri also denied the ARF request to select an Armenian candidate for the Protestant seat. He insisted the seat should go to an ally of his who was an Arab Protestant. Due to these differences between Hariri and ARF, ARF and a segment of the Hunchag party candidates ran with the opposition bloc (anti-Hariri), while the ADL and another segment of Hunchags ran with the Hariri bloc. The following deputies got elected: Apostolics (Djeredjian–Hunchag; Kassarji–pro-ARF; Hovnanian–ARF; Hagop Kassarjian–ADL; Jean Oghassapian–pro-ADL, independent). Serge TourSarkissian (pro-Hunchag, independent) won the Catholic seat. The Protestant seat was captured by an Arab Protestant, a Hariri ally. These candidates represented ARF /pro-ARF (2), Hunchag/pro-Hunchag (2), and ADL/pro-ADL (2). It was the first time that the representation among the three parties was balanced. Hunchags and ADL allies gained seats in the parliament, running together on the Hariri list.
In 2005, for the election of the eighteenth Parliament (2005-2009, 128 seats), ARF’s disputes with Hariri continued, paving the way for Hunchags and the ADL to capture the majority of the 6 Armenian seats. The Armenians lost again the Protestant seat to an ally of Hariri. The elected deputies were, Apostolics: Djeredjian (Hunchag), Kassarji (pro-ARF), Kassardjian (ADL), Oghassepian (pro-ADL, independent), Hagop Pakradouni (ARF). Serge TourSarkissian (pro-Hunchag, independent) captured the Catholic seat. These deputies represented ARF/pro-ARF (2), Hunchags/pro-Hunchag (2), and ADL/pro-ADL (2).
Several key events took place during the previous and ensuing years (1998-2009) that shaped the Lebanese politics.
1) President Emil Lahood’s (1998-2004) term in office was extended by 3 years by parliament to November 2007. This created major divisions in Lebanese politics and pitted against each other the Lahood camp vs. the Hariri camp.
2) Hariri was prime minister during 1992-1998 and 2000-Oct. 2004. His assassination and that of 21 of his entourage on Feb. 14, 2005 precipitated the resignation of the Omar Karami government and the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon. The U.N. Special Tribunal for Lebanon was established to investigate the murder and the several other assassinations that followed the murder. A mass protest supporting the Karami government and the Syrian presence in Lebanon was held on March 8, followed by a mass protest against Karami government and against the presence of Syrian army in Lebanon on March 14, The latter was designated as the start of the Cedar Revolution.
3) The Lebanese political climate was highly polarized during 2006-2008, when Hezbollah and its allies closed downtown Beirut and the parliament for 18 months, protesting against the Lebanese government headed by Fouad Siniora, an ally of Hariri who assumed the premiership after Hariri’s assassination.
4) In addition, the 34-day war (July 12, 2006-August 14, 2006) between Hezbollah and Israeli forces caused substantial damage to lives and property.
5) During May 7 and 8, 2008, Hezbollah fought major battles against Hariri supporters in West Beirut and Joumblat supporters in the Chouf mountains, resulting in fears of another Civil War. Parliament did not meet for 18 months due the crisis during 2006-2008.
6) The presidency stayed vacant between Nov. 23, 2007 and May 25, 2008, when Michel Suleiman, the army chief of staff was elected president. He was the third army chief to be elected president of Lebanon (Chehab, Lahood and Suleiman). Suleiman’s election was preceded by the Doha Agreement among all major political parties, including Armenian deputies, orchestrated by the Emir of Qatar on May 21, 2008. It ended the 18-month political crisis. The agreement included opening the parliament with the election of Suleiman as president, a formation of a unity government under Siniora (March 14 Alliance) with a veto power to the minority (March 8 Alliance) and the adoption of the 1960 law for parliamentary districting. In November 2009 Sa’ad Hariri, the son of slain PM Rafic Hariri succeeded Siniora as prime minister. His government toppled in January 2011. After five months of political bickering, Najib Mikati, representing the March 8 Alliance, was able to form a government in July 2011.
During the 2006-2008 crises, the Armenian parties again played a very positive role, encouraging dialogue and resolution of conflicts. Even though sometimes they found themselves affiliated with opposing camps, yet they kept an internal united front to safeguard and protect the Armenian population of Lebanon.
Finally, in 2009 elections for the nineteenth parliament (2009-2013, 128 deputies) the ARF formed coalitions with Gen. Aoun’s Change and Reform Bloc and Hizbullah/Amal lists while the ADL and Hunchags joined the ticket with Hariri. However, in Beirut’s second district, the Armenian parties formed a unified ticket. In Beirut’s first district Serge Toursarkissian (pro-Hunchag, independent)) and Col. Jean Oghasabian (pro-ADL, independent) were elected on Hariri’s list. In Beirut’s second district Sebouh Kalpakian (Hunchag) and Arthur Nazarian (pro-ARF, AGBU member, independent) were elected unopposed, based on an earlier agreement between ARF and Hunchags. In North Metn district Pakradouni (ARF) won unopposed due to the huge Armenian pro-ARF population of Bourj-Hammoud. He campaigned on the Change and Reform ticket. In Zahle district Shant Chinichian (indpendent, AGBU member) supported by ADL and Hunchag was elected on the Lebanese Forces list after defeating the long-time Armenian deputy and ARF candidate Kassarji. George Iskhanian (independent, supported by ARF) lost the Protestant seat in Beirut’s third district which was carried by an Arab Protestant. Thus the distribution of deputies among Armenian parties was ARF/pro-ARF (2), Hunchag/pro-Hunchag (2), pro-ADL (1) and independent (1).
Due to the past difficulties with the Hariri camp, the ARF has aligned with the March 8 Alliance since its formation in 2005. March 8 Alliance (68 deputies) is made up of Change and Reform Bloc (headed by Michel Aoun), Amal Movement (headed by Speaker Nabih Berry), Hezbollah Movement and other smaller left-leaning factions. The March 8 Alliance is now in power with PM Najib Mikati. It includes two Armenian ministers–Gen. Panos Manjian, a graduate of the Armenian Evangelical College and Vrej Sabounjian both ministers of state representing the ARF. The March 14 Alliance lost its majority when most of the deputies aligned with Druze leader Walid Joumblat shifted their loyalty to March 8 Alliance thus bringing down the Hariri Government in January 2011. The March 14 Alliance (60 deputies) that is headed by Hariri and Seniora’s Future Movement as well as Lebanese Forces and Phalange Parties, includes the Hunchags, ADL and independent Armenian deputies.
Armenian deputies have served in the Lebanese Parliament since 1934. Due to the rivalry between ARF on one side and ADL and Hunchags on the other side for almost 60 years, during most of the elections Armenian parties have not been able to form a united front. Their acrimonious and contentious rivalry during the late 19th century and part of 20th century was exacerbated by the establishment of the Soviet Republic of Armenia in 1920, the sad Apostolic Church issues of 1950s, the Lebanese Civil War of 1958 and the terrible consequences for Armenians during the 1958 strife in Lebanon when many young Armenians were killed. During this period the ARF, being the most popular party, dominated most of the elections of the Armenian deputies.
However, many factors played in reducing the tensions and creating harmony among Armenian political parties. These included: the joint commemorations of the 50- and 60-year anniversaries of the Armenian Genocide in 1965 and 1975 respectively, the devastating earthquake in Armenia in 1988, the creation of the independent Republic of Armenia after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the liberation of Nagorno-Karabakh from Azerbaijan, and finally the wise leadership and guidance of the three last Catholicoi of the See of Cilicia in Antelias (His Holiness Khoren I, Karekin II, Aram I). All these factors have enabled the Armenian parties to find common ground and refocus their attention on 21st century issues.
The sharp rivalries have dissipated and there is a lot of collaboration and understanding among all three Armenian political parties. In addition, the heroic actions of Armenian youths from all parties, especially the ARF, to protect Armenian neighborhoods during the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) created a sense of unity in the community. Unfortunately, the current situation of the strife between March 14 and March 8 Alliances has split the Armenian parties again. Yet deep down there is an understanding that with the dwindling numbers of Armenians in Lebanon over the last 30 years and the hard economic times, Armenian parties will succeed together or fail together. The dividing issues of the 19th and 20th centuries have almost vanished. The collaboration of Armenian parties is crucial in light of recent developments in Syria. The Armenian parties are preoccupied with keeping educational, cultural, social/clinical, elderly care and religious establishments strong and viable. There is an understanding, especially among younger Armenian internet-savvy generation that full collaboration among Armenian parties, institutions and organizations are crucial for the future welfare of the community.
Author’s Note: As a young Armenian growing up in Lebanon during ’50s and ’60s I was a member of the First Armenian Evangelical Church and a student at Armenian Evangelical College (1948-1962) and then at American University of Beirut (1962-1970). I had many friends from all three Armenian parties and all three denominations. It was devastating to witness the divisions among Armenians. During the last 20 years I have visited Lebanon almost 15 times. During my trips I have witnessed more maturity among Armenians in their views and beliefs that there are many more issues that unite them than divide them. My daily readings of "Aztag" and "Zartonk" newspapers on Internet show the vibrant life of the community in spite of economic hardships and political turmoil in the region. I would like to acknowledge the corrections and comments by Mr. Zaven M. Messerlian with respect to names, dates and affiliations of the deputies, after his review of the first draft. If there are still some errors, I do apologize and take full responsibility and would like to ask for rectification by the readers.
1) Raffi Demirjian, Aztag, May 15 2009. Mer Garouyztnere, pp4-8
2) Roupen Avsharian. “The Ta’ef Agreement and the Lebanese-Armenians.”
In “Armenians of Lebanon From past princesses and Refugees to present day Community. pp 387-410.
3. Personal communications with Mr. Zaven M. Messerlian, principal of Armenian Evangelical College, Beirut, Lebanon.