BEIRUT -- A controversial draft law to overhaul Lebanon's electoral system gained traction Tuesday when a parliamentary joint committee supported it, raising the possibility that voters will in future be able to cast ballots only for candidates from their own sect.
Proponents say the law would protect their communities and ensure fairer elections. Opponents say it would further entrench sectarianism in a sharply divided country.
"Election law was one of the last things that wasn't codified in sectarian terms," said Emile Hokayem, an analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, or I.I.S.S., in Bahrain.
The change, known as the Orthodox Proposal, was first supported by Christian parties that felt their communities were misrepresented in past elections.
Lebanon's political system is largely governed by sectarian quotas and criteria. Under an agreement reached at independence in 1943, the president is always a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of Parliament a Shiite. Parliamentary seats are split evenly between Christians and Muslims: Each specific sect within these groups -- for example Greek Orthodox Christians or Druze Muslims -- is allocated a set number of seats.
The number of seats allocated to each group is now quite arbitrary since there has been no census in Lebanon since 1932. Quotas and electoral districts have been adjusted since, but the demographic base for the system remains the 80-year-old, and visibly obsolete, poll.
The system, intended to promote coexistence, has instead become a driving factor in Lebanon's conflicts over the years, most notably its 15-year civil war.
In past elections, Lebanon was divided into electoral districts -- 26 in 2009, up from 14 in the previous two elections, in 2000 and 2005. In each district, seats were allocated on a sectarian basis, but voters could cast ballots for any candidate, with one vote for every available seat, regardless of sect.
Christian parties have argued that the system allowed many seats reserved for their communities to be decided by Muslim votes.
In Lebanon's second-largest city, Tripoli, for example, two parliamentary seats are reserved for Christian sects, but the overwhelming majority of residents are Sunni Muslims. Even if every Christian in the city voted en bloc for two candidates, the outcome could still be determined by Sunni voters.
In other districts, seats are only allocated to one sect despite the presence of other groups.
"There is a really deep feeling within the Christian community today in Lebanon that it's time to stop this injustice," said Farid El Khazen, a member of Parliament from the Free Patriotic Movement, a Christian party, who supports the draft law.
As well as limiting voters' choices to candidates from their own sect, the proposal would replace local voting districts with a single, nationwide poll.
The parliamentary committee vote Tuesday showed support for the proposal from Amal and Hezbollah -- the principle Shiite factions -- as well as the main Christian parties. Among the plan's harshest critics have been the Sunni-affiliated Future Movement, the Druze-backed Progressive Socialist Party and President Michel Suleiman.
Rhetoric for and against the law has been fervent. Opponents have called it unconstitutional and warned that it would encourage extremism. Saad Hariri, leader of the Future Movement and a former prime minister, took to Twitter to call Tuesday a "black day" for the Lebanese Parliament.
But Michel Aoun, head of the Free Patriotic Movement, said that Tuesday was the happiest day in Lebanon's history.
Parliamentary elections are slated for June but could be delayed. The proposal needs to go before the entire Parliament, and if passed could be vetoed by the president. The outcome remains unclear.
For critics, the draft law is seen as a step that further ingrains sectarianism. "It shapes the discourse in a very fundamental way," said Mr. Hokayem, the I.I.S.S. analyst. "We already had positions divided by sect, not allocated based on competence. Now we are actually breaking one of the last societal bridges, which had political hopefuls forced to engage other constituencies beyond their comfort zones."
Lokman Slim, a social and political activist, said the proposal "should be seen as one of the signs of the times of what is happening in Syria, Lebanon and in Iraq." Mr. Slim heads an organization documenting Lebanon's conflicts.
The 1932 census found that over half of Lebanon's population was Christian. That percentage is widely believed to have fallen since then, probably to well under half, but no precise figures exist.
With this in mind, some say that the proposal would mean that fewer Christian votes would be needed to elect candidates to Parliament, skewing the system in their favor.
"These issues were present in 1975 due to the fact that Christians were presiding over power beyond their demographic distribution or demographic size -- that's why part of the civil war started" said Imad Salamey, an associate professor of political science at Lebanese American University in Beirut. "Now, this is bringing back sectarianism and bringing back the same issues that gave rise to the war."
Mr. El Khazen, the Parliament member, defended the law. "Lebanon is sectarian and will become more sectarian with or without the law," he said. "We have no signs, no indications whatsoever, that in the next 10 years Lebanon will be headed toward a secular system or a less confessional system."
Such support for the plan underscores how deep sectarian identity still runs in a country where, to take just one example, interfaith marriages are prohibited from being performed by the state.
In 2011, a movement against Lebanon's sectarian political system was inspired by the Arab Spring revolutions. Some protests brought tens of thousands to the streets, but the movement soon lost momentum and collapsed.
This year saw a push for the adoption of civil marriage in Lebanon. It received verbal support from Mr. Hariri, the former prime minister, and Mr. Suleiman, the president. But last month, Sheik Mohammed Rashid Qabbani, the top Sunni cleric in the country, issued a ruling that called support for civil marriage apostasy, effectively quashing the idea and illustrating the strong pushback such initiatives face.
Many see a break from sectarianism as the only way to finally shake the ghosts of the civil war. "The only way that Christians and Muslims can coexist is by undermining sectarian-driven politics and making political interests cross-sectarian," said Mr. Salamey, the professor.
But Tuesday evening, when secular activists called for a protest against the draft law in Beirut, few turned up.
"At the end of the day, the sectarian leaders -- the feudal leaders -- are still around, and they mobilize much larger numbers," Mr. Hokayem said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.