In Lebanon, political void is not an option

Sunday 04/06/2017

Despite the election of a president last October, Lebanon’s tumultuous political and constitutional crisis remains.
Lebanon’s parliamentary elections, delayed twice on the grounds of security, might be postponed again as political differences over changes to the country’s electoral laws prove too great an impasse to the democratic process. To Lebanon’s political parties, changes to the electoral laws override all else as they redraw the political scene and specify the weights each of them will be afforded in any ballot.
The most recent national elections were in June 2009. Lebanon has traditionally relied upon majoritarian elections in which the list of candidates that earns 51% of the votes wins all the seats in the electoral district. That system has been criticised by civil society and independent observers as unable to properly represent the range of political opinion in the country.
Much of Lebanon’s political conversation recently has centred on the introduction of an electoral system built on proportional representation.
The term of the current parliament expires on June 20. Lebanese President Michel Aoun has stated that the inability of the country’s political factions to agree on a new electoral law before that date will lead to elections under the strictures of the current statute, generally referred to as the 1960 law (though amended in the Doha Accord in 2008).
This position, which is in line with the constitution, runs counter to Aoun’s former stance, in which he seemed ready to accept a political vacuum rather than proceed on the basis of the 1960 law. Aoun’s apparent U-turn is seen as in keeping with the position of his principal ally, Hezbollah, which firmly opposed any vacuum. Mohammad Raad, president of Hezbollah’s parliamentary bloc, clearly stated that a vacuum in the legislative body would paralyse the cabinet and, eventually, the presidency.
As time grows tighter, options become increasingly limited. A vacuum no longer appears to be a possibility — and is unconstitutional — while the chances of reaching agreement on a new law are just as likely to fail as they are to succeed.
Some groups are calling for a new law to be voted in the streamlined council of ministers, an option that was categorically refused by Hezbollah, as well as by Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri and Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt.
The political consensus that has all but defined previous decision-making processes, especially after the Doha Accord of 2008, has practically granted each of the country’s constituents the power of veto, irrespective of their political position. Not being one to let any opportunity slip, it’s a veto that’s been exercised every time a faction felt its interests were in jeopardy.
Perhaps the most enthusiastic adherent of this legal quirk was Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM). The FPM, along with its ally, Hezbollah, refrained from participating in 42 presidential election sessions in the parliament before it secured the success of its candidate — Aoun.
The country is at a crossroads. Either its political forces will succeed in generating a new electoral law before the end of the parliamentary term or a so-called technical extension for a few months, expected before the end of 2017, will be used to have elections later, according to Doha law.
In both cases, little change is expected in any election regardless of the law. The deep-rooted political system based on clientelism, nepotism, sectarianism and confessionalism will be hard to drive out in one electoral round.
In the past, this system and its political symbols have proved on several occasions to destroy and degrade any real efforts to enact reform. It will continue to resist it.