Lebanese Democracy: A state of paralysis

Samar Al-Gamal, Friday 14 Nov 2014

Facing the absence of Lebanon’s president, the parliament extended its own mandate, the dates for an upcoming election have yet to be announced

A view of Lebanon's parliament, April 2014 (Photo: Reuters)

Lebanon today does not have a president, nor a government, nor does it have legitimate members of parliament. In a matter of minutes, the Lebanese parliament indeed extended its own mandate last week, which was in principle supposed to end in June 2013. It was extended until June 2017 in order to avoid a ''total vacuum.''

Theoretically, this date would allow it to entirely finish the drafting of a new law – if we add the first self-extension. The members had already extended it in May 2013 for 17 months, leaving doubts about the legitimacy of such a measure... 

Activists had attempted to prevent Lebanese members of parliament’s vehicles from reaching the parliament in the center of Beirut and had put up tents in Riad Al-Solh square, a few meters from the parliament, to express their discontent regarding the extension of the parliament’s mandate.

The members, incapable for 15 sessions of agreeing on an electoral law or the president’s future, quickly approved this very problematic law, putting forward ''national security'' to justify their position.

The partisans of the extension also invoked the presidential vacancy as a justification, with President Michel Sleiman not providing an opinion when they approved the first extension. His mandate has ended on 25 May 2014.

''Without extension, the government would be obliged to resign, and in the absence of a president, there would be a total vacuum,'' justified Rami El-Rayes, from the Progressive Socialist Party of Walid Junblat, in a phone interview.

The vote reveals once more the extent to which, 25 years after its signature, the Taif Accords are fragile. They are indeed mixing the cards of power relations in Lebanon. A majority of 95 out of 97 members present have voted ''yes'' while 2 members of parliament (MPs) of the Armenian party Tashnaq voted against. The remaining 31 MPs have boycotted the session.

Hence, the Christian MPs of Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Current (FPC), allies of Hezbollah and Amal Movement, contrary to the latter, boycotted the session and were hence on the side of their rival Al-Kataeb of Amin Jmayel.

Aoun has demarcated from his allies of 8 March group and of the Reform and Change Bloc in the parliament which he is a part of along with Tashnaq and Al-Marada of Soleiman Franjiye. At the same time, Jmayel has demarcated from the 14 March bloc. The Christians’ voice is hence divided, while the Sunni Muslims, Shia and Druze voted in favor of the extension.

The FPC also opposed the first extension in May 2013.

“We will call for a constitutional council again,” explains external relations coordinator of the FPC, Michel de Chadarevian. Speaking over the phone from Beirut, he criticised a decision justified for “security reasons.”

“Beirut just hosted a marathon where about 50,000 Lebanese and foreigners participated without any danger,” he says.

But he also admits a fact: “We are a minority in the parliament, which makes the extension de facto effective.”

At a meeting in the context of its presidential prerogatives, the cabinet, whose mandate expired with the parliament, did not unanimously endorse the extension law of the parliament’s mandate.

Nine out of 28 members abstained. The Cabinet assumes the prerogatives of the presidency only unanimously among the members, and the absence of unanimity is equivalent to rejection.

The issue goes beyond the borders

According to an Egyptian diplomat who served in the Lebanese capital, the issue goes beyond Lebanese borders. He counts several factors: “The clashes between ISIS, Hezbollah and the Lebanese army in Tripoli, the army that seems to have taken Hezbollah’s position, the Syrian refugees who are shaking the Lebanese demography…”

The two big political blocs in the country, the 8 March alliance, allies of Bashar Al-Assad’s regime, and the anti-Syrian coalition of March 14 are hence exacerbated by the Syrian crisis. The Egyptian diplomat, who prefers to keep his anonymity, adds that “another important factor is the delay of the Saudi money that could finance an entente and the problem is that everyone is preoccupied with something other than Lebanon.”

 He also mentioned the influence of Iran, Syria, the United States and France. Another high diplomatic source says this is because Lebanon “has always served as a valve to the region’s countries. Today, it is replaced by Syria.” According to this source, “the Lebanese crisis is not an internal conflict, Lebanon waits for a solution that would come from abroad, depending on Bashar’s status and American-Iranian relations.”

In late 2013, King Abdallah of Saudi Arabia had promised Lebanon $3 billion, of which $2.1 billion in military equipment would be bought from France. But Riyadh hesitated before finalising a contract with France last week, after Iran proposed to Beirut a donation of $1 billion in military aid.

The Egyptian diplomat, visiting Beirut at the time of the parliamentary extension, recalls that profound sectarian and social divisions are not new. Indeed for twenty years, the nomination of a new president was akin to crisis, and that almost never had a chief of the state been designated by the official date.

In 2007-2008, Lebanon had faced a similar vacuum at the end of Emile Lahoud’s extended mandate, before an agreement sponsored by Qatar, France, Syria and Saudi Arabia, known as the Doha agreement, ended the blockage.

“This time, things are even more complicated, because there is a tendency to nominate a president who does not come from the army,” explains the diplomat.

Consensus Candidate

Two names are typically put forward. One of them is Michel Aoun a 8 March candidate, and the other Samir Geagea, is candidate of 14 March. But the army chief’s name, Jean Kahwaji, is being heard more and more as a consensus candidate.

The 8 March MPs have continuously boycotted the parliament’s sessions to elect a president, hence preventing the attainment of the required quorum. The constitution requires the physical presence in the hemicycle, of two-thirds of the MPs, for an electoral process to take place. This corresponds to 86 parliamentarians out of the 128 members of the National Assembly. Hezbollah and its ally the Free Patriotic Current, constitute, with their other allies, more than 40 MPs, which technically allows them to prevent any election. The FPC tries to use its boycott to impose a constitutional amendment, according to which the chief of state would be elected with a universal suffrage throughout two phases.

“Nothing new about the subject. No consensus,” Chadarevian and Ryess agree.

 “Our side has a power of decision on the national level, in addition to a regional mandate. It is what the other side has to succeed in doing. We are in favour of a well determined candidate, and he assures to all the best Christian and national representation.  His name is … General Michel Aoun,” announced Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in a speech last week.

But to the surprise of all, the Hezbollah chief took a conciliation discourse towards the 14 March movement, by extending “the hand” to them, and he even honoured the role played by Saad Hariri amid the last incidents of Tripoli and his support to the army.

The new extension and the current presidential vacuum illustrate once more the breakdown of the democratic process in Lebanon. It is so ironic that to hold legislative elections, a new electoral law is required. However, according to the constitution, the parliament cannot legislate in the absence of a president, and in order to organise elections, there must be a prime minister, but first a president in order to designate him, and a president has to be nominated first by the MPs. The extension, instead of marking an exit out of the crisis, bestows a state of paralysis.

* This article was first pubished by Ahram Hebdo on Nov. 12

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