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.