The Lebanese deadlock
Lebanon’s parliament met on February 8th and tried for the 35th time to elect a president. And for the 35th time, it failed.
Those who follow Lebanese politics are baffled that the country should go without a head of state for 20 months while leaders engage in a dizzying waltz of shifting political alliances. Almost every week brings a bizarre, unprecedented factional realignment. The latest example was Samir Geagea’s backing of his erstwhile enemy Michel Aoun for president. The two veteran Christian leaders are distinguished by more than three decades of fierce antagonism that resulted in the deaths of many of their followers.
They are not the only strange bedfellows. The Sunni Muslim faction led by Saad Hariri has enthusiastically endorsed the presidential candidacy of Suleiman Frangieh, a self-declared friend of Syrian President Bashar Assad, an enemy of Hariri’s.
To add insult to injury, Lebanese politicians have blamed the institutional deadlock gripping the small country on Israel and Syria, and now increasingly on Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Lebanese are therefore shackled by the excuse of nasty foreign actors who are far larger than Lebanon. This may have been true at various moments of Lebanese history but surrendering responsibility to regional and international actors leaves the country with a good conscience when garbage piling up in the streets turns into a national nightmare and the presidency is left vacant for two years.
We refuse to acknowledge Lebanese responsibility for the repeated manufacturing of the presidential deadlock, on which rest other national disasters; from garbage collection, to power cuts, to endless bickering over whether to have meetings in the Council of Ministers, to legislative bills left sleeping in the drawers of parliament.
Recent realignments may have made the presidential deadlock more opaque but the equation is simple. It is easy for a faction that considers the presidency its natural right to block the election. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah expressed it crudely in his latest statement supporting the candidacy of Aoun: “We are ready to attend a parliamentary session tomorrow if we are guaranteed the election of Aoun by parliament.” One can expect Hariri and other leaders would boycott the election if their candidate is not guaranteed victory.
How does mere non-attendance lead to persistent presidential vacancy? In a country where the plethora of political factions operating on a sectarian basis prevents national politics from developing naturally across the country, political alignments may become increasingly complicated. But the deadlock cannot be understood outside a reality that is eminently constitutional.
There are many parliamentarian countries ridden with factionalism. They do not end up with the structural deadlocks seemingly peculiar to Lebanon; characterised by a vacancy at the head of the executive power. In the French republic, in Westminster, in Israel such a dramatic institutional vacancy does not occur. In Lebanon, it did not exist until ten years ago when deputies chose to simply not attend a session devoted to electing a president and effectively prevented the election from happening.
The answer does not lie in politics, as such, either domestic or regional. The deadlock is constitutional. According to the constitution, decisions are taken by a simple majority of members of parliament. This is the majority used to pass laws and to elect the other two presidents; the president of the Council of Ministers (the prime minister) and the president of parliament (the speaker).
The exception is for the election of the president of the republic. With the constitution requiring the president to be elected by a two-thirds majority in the first round, one-third plus one of the MPs may physically leave the chamber to prevent a second round of majority voting. As soon as they leave the room, or if the contrived two-thirds majority is not met in the first place, the session lacks quorum. I know of no similar constitutional absurdity elsewhere.
No country can function with this kind of constitutional practice. A normal reading ensures that the expected game of political alliances takes place in parliament, with a winner and a loser. This is called democracy.