Lebanon’s government formation damaging its Presidency

By Labib Chemali

 

As Lebanon enters its fourth month without a government questions are being asked as to why Michel Sulieman, Lebanon’s President is being perceived as not only hampering the government formation, but also seeking to further marginalise the Christians (members of his own sect).

Lebanon’s complex political system requires any Government to be 50% Muslim and 50% Christian with the four Sovereign Portfolio’s (Defence, Interior, Foreign and Finance) being distributed to Lebanon’s for largest sects; Maronite Christian, Orthodox Christian, Sunni Muslim and Shiyite Muslim.

As Prime Minister Designate, Najib Miqati has run out of excuses to stall government formation; first it was to wait for the February 14 rally by the previous majority, then the March 14 rally followed by wanting to wait for the highly politicised indictment into Rafic Hariri’s murder and then holding out to see what may happen in neighbouring Syria.   The business interests of the Billionaire Prime Minister Designate being threatened by the international community has not made his task any easier as the new majority who appointed him are starting to lose patience with his “wait and see” approach.

Another significant obstacle the government formation seems to be facing are the excessive demands by Lebanon’s President Michel Sulieman, who came as a consensus candidate among the different political factions in Lebanon in 2008.  His short history in the chair however has been seen as far from consensual.

The Change and Reform Bloc lead by Michel Aoun (former commander of the armed forces and Prime Minister who was exiled for 15 years returning to Lebanon only after the last Syrian soldier left Lebanon in 2005) has 27 MP’s, the largest Christian bloc and second largest overall bloc in Lebanon’s Parliament.  This bloc is also the largest bloc in the current majority and since the March 14 political gathering (previous majority) indicated that it wants no part in the new government, the Change and Reform bloc is 40% of the new majority and thus entitled to 40% of the Ministers in the new cabinet.  Having also 19 out of the 34 Maronite MP’s in Lebanon’s Parliament it is also entitled to a Sovereign Ministry.

Not so, believes the President who insists on having both the Defence and Interior Ministries at the expense of the Change and Reform Bloc.  The Presidency having been relegated to being a Head of State after the 1989 the militarily implemented Taef Accord stripped much of its powers has left a bad taste in the mouths of Christians who felt marginalised during the Syrian occupation of Lebanon and up until 2009.

This occupation has produced the “Ghazi Kanaan Electoral Law” named after Syria’s previous intelligence chief (who was in charge of Lebanon from 1990 – 2005) who devised a law that gerrymandered districts and formed electorates with districts that do not border each other in order to dilute Christian votes thus denying them the opportunity to democratically elect their own representatives.  This law was also put to good use in the 2005 elections after Syria withdrew by the March 14 coalition but was later revoked to a different and slightly fairer law in 2008.

In the 2009 and 2010 Parliamentary and Local Council Elections respectively, President Sulieman fielded his own “Centrist” candidates without much success.  Yet he only seemed to be fielding his candidates in districts where Michel Aoun has a strong standing and  questions are starting to be posed to the President in the Christian street in Lebanon and abroad; why are you targeting districts that Michel Aoun is strong in? If you are genuinely a Centrist should you not also target districts traditionally held by the Future Movement (Sunni), Progressive Socialist Party (Druze) Hezbollah (Shiyite), Amal (Shiyite) and other Christian parties?

Stepping back to Government formation, the President seems at loggerheads with Michel Aoun who is seen as someone who risked his political capital by protecting the Sunnis of Lebanon the late 80’s the Shiyites in 2006 and now as someone who is bringing the Christians back from 20 years of marginalisation.  Sulieman is insisting on having the Interior Ministry, although the last time he was given this ministry was (when March 14 were the majority in power) the consequences were disastrous.

The President’s previous candidate as Interior Minister was Ziad Baroud, a career public servant was impotent in his role as he was unable to stop the corruption, bribery and cheating in the 2009 and 2010 elections.  He was also not able to reign in his subordinate Internal Security Force’s Chief Ashraf Rifi whose conduct is questionable and activities are illegal and unconstitutional.  Rifi being backed by the now toppled Prime Minister Saadedine Hariri and the March 14 movement left Baroud with no political cover to achieve anything in the Ministry.

Recently Michel Aoun indicated that he may compromise on the Interior Ministry but stated that other problems will arise and indeed he was correct.  For the sake of Government formation and in order to stave off the worsening economic situation, Aoun agreed on retired officer Marwan Charbel (a candidate agreed upon by the President) for the Interior Ministry.  Now it appears that new problems are arising on Sulieman wanting more Maronite Ministers in his share.

So the questions to Sulieman continue “you were not entitled to the Interior Ministry, so why did you deny it to Michel Aoun who was entitled to it?” Other questions being asked are “why are you only after the share of Ministers belonging to the Change and Reform Bloc?  Why not Amal, Hezbollah, Progressive Socialist Party and/or Najib Miqati’s shares? Why are you only targeting the Parliamentary Bloc seeking to regain the Christian’s lost rights?”

There is no doubt that Michel Sulieman has political ambitions beyond his Presidency and it is his right to do so.  However targeting only the Change and Reform Bloc and Free Patriotic Movement (Aoun’s Party) has dispelled any doubts that Sulieman is not a “Centrist” nor is he the consensus candidate he made himself out to be in order to get to the Presidency.

Many of General Aoun’s detractors and Sulieman’s supporters (who overlap in most instances) accuse Aoun of weakening the Presidency, yet they fall awfully silent every time Aoun proposes a constitutional amendment to regain some of the powers of the Presidency that were stripped in 1990.

The constitution of Lebanon states that the President is the head of state and an adjudicator thus in theory all of Lebanon’s Ministers should be his Ministers irrespective of their political affiliation.  The fact that the Presidency is now squabbling to get a few Ministers is damaging to this position in the Lebanese Republic which leaves one final question that begs to be asked, “The Change and Reform Bloc and Free Patriotic Movement are seeking to strengthen the Presidency, why is the President seeking to weaken them?”

 

By Labib Chemali

The United Australian Lebanese Movement

14/05/2011

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