The recipe for chaos in Lebanon
“We are not merely transferring power from one administration to another, we are transferring power from Washington and giving it back to you,” words from US President Donald Trump’s inaugural speech expressing one dimension of populism that “means different things to different groups but all versions share a suspicion of and hostility towards elites, mainstream politics and established institutions”, as Fareed Zakaria explained in Foreign Affairs.
Obviously, populism is on the rise in the West. Traditions of democracy and constitutional rule are at stake. Globalisation and open-border policies seem to be taking a reverse trend for the sake of protectionism, erecting walls on frontiers and measures that jeopardise decades of cooperation between countries. The withdrawal of Britain from the European Union is but one prominent example.
The Middle East, being historically the centre of conflicts, has been affected by this trend of populism. It contributed to what was known as the globalisation of rage, as Pankaj Mishra explained, considering that “today’s extremism looks familiar”.
How does such a global trend on the rise affect a small country such as Lebanon? How can a country built on intricate balance of powers, with both regional and local dimensions, provide space for populist speeches that could upset the balances?
The unique formula of consociational democracy that Lebanon developed after the Taif accord (1989) and especially after the Doha agreement (2008) has gradually descended into a collective governance system that requires unanimity on almost all decisions. The confessional structure aggravated this fragile system granting political leaders exclusive rights to veto decisions that contradict their interests in the name of the sect.
Gradually, the right of representation for the sects turned out to be the right to veto, boycott or paralyse the political and constitutional system. The monopolisation of sectarian politics by some leaders has given way for populism to increase.
Attempts by some groups to drag the political process towards the creation of pure confessional parliamentarian blocs in contradiction to a diversified one shall automatically lead to the rise of populism and extremism.
Political discourse by populists in Lebanon is aiming at developing the idea that proper representation at the national and parliamentarian levels would not be secured if not every sect elects its members in parliament whether directly or indirectly. For this purpose, gerrymandering is being practised in all discussions pertaining to electoral laws, and proposed draft laws have nothing to do with reform, rather pursuing the attainment of the largest number of parliamentary seats.
This populist approach is undoubtedly devastating to the fragile Lebanese democracy, to coexistence and partnership in the country. When every sect will be strictly allowed to elect its members, populist and extremist discourse will be on the rise, especially when candidates must address solely members of their sects; whereas, this will not be the case had electoral bases been diversified.
This populist approach will lead to additional fragmentation of political life in Lebanon. It might be an introduction to mess with the intricate balances of power at the local level. The redistribution of political power as stipulated by the Taif accord that ceased the 15-year civil war might be revisited in one way or another. Whether this parallels former regional efforts to resketch the local power-sharing formula is an issue to be examined thoroughly in the days to come.
Populism in Lebanon has its characteristics, true. Yet, it conforms to the international trend of populism: Introducing chaos!