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A government for all the people

August 2nd, 2009 · 6 Comments · Commentary, Lebanon

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As Lebanon moves closer to announcing its unity cabinet, a lot of people are complaining about the length of time it has taken to get this far.

It is now eight weeks since the most hotly fought elections in Lebanon’s history. The ruling March 14 coalition held on to power – winning by 55% to 45%. It was a shock win – the Hizbollah-led oppositon was widely expected to sweep to victory.

Hizbollah graciously conceded defeat and March 14’s Sa’ad Al-Hariri was chosen as Prime Minister-designate. And that is when the trouble began.

Before the election, he insisted that the opposition would not be given veto power, as they had before. Many of his surprised and newly-victorious supporters didn’t even want opposition members in the cabinet. What kind of democracy is it where the winners can’t rule the country, they moaned.

And whine and moan is all they have done since. Sore winners.

They hate the fact that Hasan Nasrallah and Michel Aoun seem to be demanding cabinet seats. And they blame THEM for the delay. Eight weeks, they tut.

But if these democracy-lovers looked abroad, they might actually be thankful that it has only taken eight weeks. Most European parliamentary democracies are elected on the basis of proportional representation. That forces winning parties into sometimes uncomfortable coalitions. Those coalitions often take weeks – sometimes months – to form. Some countries even impose a time limit on cabinet formation.

When these coalitions fall apart (normally when one party walks out of the cabinet), the government falls and fresh elections are held. That didn’t happen in Lebanon in 2006 when Hizbollah walked out. Hariri’s party stubbornly held on to power.

In their eight-week wait, the Lebanese democracy-lovers might actually question the nature of the democracy they worship. Lebanon may have one of the most developed political systems in the region (which probably isn’t saying much!) but it is still deeply flawed.

True, the opposition is demanding seats in government, even though they lost. But the opposition WON the popular vote. March 14 picked up fewer votes nationwide than March 8, under an ugly electoral law. It is true that Hizbollah supported that electoral law, but it drives a hole right through March 14’s claims to represent the majority of Lebanese.

The democracy-lovers might also like to question their ‘confessional democracy’. Set up by the French colonial power, the number of seats in parliament for each religious sect and the roles assigned to each sect, is based on the 1932 census. No-one has ever done a census since then because they know the results would be dramatically different.

Based on that terribly outdated study, Christians get half of the seats in Parliament and the office of President, even though today they form between 20% and 40% by even the most optimistic estimates.

The Sunnis get a commanding role too – holding the office of Prime Minister.

The Shia get a quarter of the seats in Parliament, and the token post of Speaker of the House. Which is strange, because the Shia represent a majority in Lebanon.

Hizbollah could demand a new census. Yes, that would give them an instant and permanent majority in parliament. But they are staying silent, and keeping Lebanon’s diverse religious make-up happy.

It’s all about unity. And unity is the reason Hariri is giving the Hizbollah-led opposition space in his government.

So when the democracy-lovers complain about how long it is taking Hariri to form a government. Or how Hizbollah and Michel Aoun are making unreasonable demands, maybe they should remember that March 14 is quite lucky to be the group forming the government.

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6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Qifa Nabki // Aug 2, 2009 at 8.04 pm

    Hi Sasa,

    A couple of points to quibble with:

    They hate the fact that Hasan Nasrallah and Michel Aoun seem to be demanding cabinet seats. And they blame THEM for the delay. Eight weeks, they tut.

    I think that the complaints are not that Nasrallah and Aoun are demanding seats but that they are demanding more than their share guaranteed by the constitution (which is, strictly speaking, nothing… much less the one third plus one that they were recently demanding.)

    But if these democracy-lovers looked abroad, they might actually be thankful that it has only taken eight weeks. Most European parliamentary democracies are elected on the basis of proportional representation. That forces winning parties into sometimes uncomfortable coalitions. Those coalitions often take weeks – sometimes months – to form. Some countries even impose a time limit on cabinet formation.

    True, but as analysts pointed out after the Lebanese election, if a system of proportional representation had been used, March 14 would probably have won by even more seats, because Aoun would have lost a couple of seats that he narrowly won in places like Jbeil, Kisrawan, and Baabda.

    Furthermore, it’s dangerous to use the analogy of European democracies, because if Lebanon was to stick to that model, Hariri would simply form the smallest possible coalition that could gain the confidence of the parliament. The entire cabinet formation process would have taken all of an hour, because March 14 had enough votes to push through the cabinet of their choice.

    That didn’t happen in Lebanon in 2006 when Hizbollah walked out. Hariri’s party stubbornly held on to power.

    Hizbullah walked out, but they didn’t have enough ministers to make the government fall. Hariri’s party held on to power because the constitution entitled them to do so.

    Lebanon may have one of the most developed political systems in the region (which probably isn’t saying much!) but it is still deeply flawed.

    True, but unlike the rest of the region, there is actually some kind of political evolution taking place in Lebanon. This election was the first held with a semi-decent electoral law. The next one will be freer and more transparent, inshallah.

    The Shia get a quarter of the seats in Parliament, and the token post of Speaker of the House. Which is strange, because the Shia represent a majority in Lebanon.

    The Speaker of the House is a powerful position, not a token post. Berri was able to close the doors of parliament for months. He held the entire legislative branch in his pocket. Hardly a token post. Plus, nobody thinks that the Shia are a majority (50%) in Lebanon. They may be a plurality (i.e. the largest minority) but it is stretching things to imagine that they are a majority.

    Hizbollah could demand a new census. Yes, that would give them an instant and permanent majority in parliament. But they are staying silent, and keeping Lebanon’s diverse religious make-up happy.

    For Hizbullah to benefit from the demand for a census, it would have to embrace the political scene in a way that it is simply not ready to do quite yet. It would have to field multiple dozens of candidates across Lebanon, for example, instead of just one dozen clustered in Baalbek and the South.

    Cheers!

  • 2 Sasa // Aug 2, 2009 at 8.14 pm

    Interesting points Qifa.

    I used the example of proportional representation to illustrate how many of Europe’s democracies require weeks or months to create a workable cabinet. I certainly wasn’t advocating PR.

    What I was saying later on, though, was that M8 won the popular vote. (And by extension if there was a single nationwide constituency PR system, which only one country in the world uses *cough*, then M8 would have won by a clear margin).

    The office of Speaker may have its benefits, but it certainly isn’t close to the power wielded by PM or President. For that reason, it is a distant third. But you’re right, it isn’t a token post.

    As for the size of the Shia population – I was under the assumption they are around 50% (either just under or over).

    And it will take more than evolution to make the system fair, won’t it? Re-drawing constituency boundaries to please this group of people or another isn’t really good enough. Are there any visionaries with the power-base to do push through real constitutional change. Or I guess, the real question is, does anyone want to?

  • 3 Qifa Nabki // Aug 2, 2009 at 8.26 pm

    If I were a Lebanese TV talk show host I would jump on your statement and say something like: “So you want Lebanon to be MORE LIKE ISRAEL??? Well do you, huh huh huh?” :)

    I actually think that the three positions of the troika are theoretically not that different, power-wise. It all depends on the personality occupying the seat. Lahoud was a strong president and he overpowered Rafiq al-Hariri at times. Berri strikes me as more powerful and influential than Sleiman.

    It will take a lot to make the system “fair”, but that still counts as “evolution” in my book. Baby steps… and we’ll get there eventually. For God sakes, it took the U.S. almost 150 years to give women the right to vote.

  • 4 Stephen // Aug 2, 2009 at 8.59 pm

    Most of the estimates I have heard places the Shia at around 35%. Then when you add up the Sunni and minority Muslim populations you get a larger proportion than the 50% that is represented in parliament today.

    Also, although the last census was taken in 1932, parliament representation *has* been adjusted since then. Taif changed the parliament representation to 1:1, a change from the 1932 representation which was 6:5 in the favor of Christians

  • 5 Sasa // Aug 3, 2009 at 12.11 am

    @ Qifa:
    You’re absolutely right that the office-holder is almost as important as the office. Berri (1992) has been in his position 17 times as long as Sleiman (2008), and Hariri (2009) – so it’s natural that he has learnt how to make the most of his post. His constitutional position is a minnow, though, compared to the most senior Christian and Sunni Muslim offices.

    Oh yeah for sure the evolution of the system will take time. All I’m saying is some M14 supporters should count their lucky stars that they have the current system where their vote is worth 1 and a half times – maybe even twice as much as a Shia vote. Because if the system does become “fairer”, they’ll be in a permanent minority (unless this dirty sectarian party system also gets swept away).

    As for your chat show host accusation – I think I need to run and hide, or face boos from the audience!

    @ Stephen – your sums don’t add up. If the Muslim total is 50%, including 35% Shia, that leaves Sunnis at around 10%. It also implies Christians are around 40%.

    From those sums, Christians are easily the largest group, followed by Shia, with Sunni forming a tiny tiny minority.

    I think it is widely accepted (someone correct me if I’m wrong) that Shia are the largest group, followed by Sunni, with Christians close behind.

    You have an interesting blog Stephen, nice find. Are you on Twitter?

  • 6 hoodia // Aug 29, 2009 at 8.04 am

    Nice but i think something is missing.

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