Searching for the Lebanese Senate
The Lebanese boast that their country stands out from the wider Arab region going as far, in a few circles, to deny their Arab lineage, tracing it back to a hodgepodge of ancient Semitic people who, according to legend, had a functioning democracy in 2500BC. This false sense of entitlement, however, is challenged by the modern-day reality that the Lebanese have not gone to the polls to elect a new parliament since the summer of 2009.
The Lebanese political elite, having failed to elect a president, saw it appropriate to extend their mandate until they all agree on how to divide the resources of the state as well as settle on a new electoral law. The election of Michel Aoun as president did not change much of this stand-off as the political parties still cannot reach an agreeable law.
The Free Patriotic Movement, under the direction of Gebran Bassil, Aoun’s son-in-law and political successor, put forward several far-fetched electoral proposals that further polarised the sectarian divide. The two-stage law proposed by Bassil essentially dictates each sect to vote for its legislators and thus would allow the Christian parties to elect their own members of parliament without recourse to their Muslim counterparts. Bassil also proposed a return of the Lebanese Senate.
Originally part of the 1926 constitution, the Senate was suspended a year later by the French mandatory authorities and merged with the parliament for allegedly impeding the democratic process. Simply put, in this bicameral system, the Senate represents the various sectarian groups each represented by a senator, while the parliament membership is secular and free from any religious restraint.
As innocent and constructive as this proposal might appear, the timing and the manner in which Bassil has introduced it is perhaps a red herring. By introducing the Senate as an item for discussion so close to the May 15 constitutional deadline for announcing elections, Bassil was, in fact, nipping this initiative in the bud.
Reactivating the Senate would virtually be a first step towards abolishing political sectarianism, as stipulated (Article 95) in the Taif Accord, which ended the 15 years of civil war.
However, it is no secret that Aoun and Bassil by extension have never recognised Taif. They view it as disenfranchising to the Christians and that it, therefore, should be rescinded.
More importantly, to put forth such a drastic amendment to the Lebanese governance structure requires amendments to the constitution, something requiring local consensus or regional and international resolve, which are both lacking.
If Bassil truly wants to abolish sectarianism as he claims, he ought to start by proposing a modern electoral law instead of the current exclusionist and alienating law he is peddling.
Upon proper examination, Bassil or anyone keen for the Senate can have recourse to the pre-existing table of dialogue, which was created in 2006 and includes representatives, or virtually senators, of all the sectarian groups. This quasi-senate does not require constitutional amendments but merely an open invitation from Aoun, who would subsequently lead it.
The underlining constitutional premise of the Senate, an assembly of wise people, is to monitor and reassess the work of the lower house and in the case of Lebanon potentially serve to abolish political sectarianism. Successful reform, however, does not only require action but rather good intentions, as these moral undertones are an essential element for the Lebanese factions to shed their fears and come together if they truly hope to break the current deadlock.
At the Free Patriotic Movement headquarters in Beirut, the main meeting room is adorned by a quote from Michel Chiha, the father of the constitution and a patron of Lebanon’s so-called Phoenician legacy “to eliminate a sect in Lebanon is trying to eliminate Lebanon.” Consequently, it might be wise, or perhaps pressing, that Bassil practises what he preaches and goes ahead with a consensual electoral law that would ensure timely elections and set the stage for constitutional reform in the not-so-distant future.
Anything beyond the aforementioned would be a reckless act that would make Lebanon’s democratic legacy a thing of the past, as of May 15, the date of the next parliament session, all sides involved should exhibit wisdom and foresight or face a bleaker future that no senate would salvage.