Political deadlock in Lebanon could continue - GulfToday

Political deadlock in Lebanon could continue

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Supporters of the Lebanese Forces party rally in the northern coastal city of Batroun as they await results following parliamentary elections in Lebanon.  File/AFP

Supporters of the Lebanese Forces party rally in the northern coastal city of Batroun as they await results following parliamentary elections in Lebanon. File/Agence France-Presse

Lebanese greeted the May15th parliamentary election results with “a little satisfaction and a little sadness,” a veteran observer of the scene stated. Lebanese traditionalists were satisfied that the competing core blocks retained their strength but saddened by the failure of the rival blocs they back to gain a decisive majority in the 128-seat parliament.

The Hizbollah/Amal bloc retained all 27 Shia seats but its ally the Maronite Christian Free Patriotic Movement lost 12 seats while the rival Maronite Christian Lebanese Forces gained two seats and its Sunni Future Movement ally, lost five.

Lebanese stirred by the October 17th, 2019 protest movement were more than a little satisfied by the unexpectedly large number of seats — between 13-16 — won by newcomers demanding change and saddened additional competent change candidates did not win.

Firas, 25, told Gulf Today, “I did not expect change in this election. The opposition parties are weak and people depend on the old parties for aid. Even though there may be good people in (the entrenched) parties, they are held back (by the bosses). It will take one or two elections before there can be change.

There must be a shift in generations, a mass awakening among the young and the age requirement for voting changed from 21 to 18.” He has a degree in financial engineering, a job in a troubled major bank, and is looking for work abroad.

The change the core “October 17th” movement demands is the exclusion of the current political class from power and the abolition of the sectarian political system granting the presidency to a Maronite Christian, the prime ministry to a Sunni, and the parliamentary speakership to a Shia.

Other newcomers are less demanding, dividing their ranks.

Defenders of the sectarian power-sharing system claim this is written into the 1926 constitution adopted during the French mandate but they are mistaken. The distribution of senior posts was fixed before independence in 1943 in the unwritten National Pact which gave the Christians the upper hand in appointments and parliamentary representation.

This changed in 1989 with the Taif Agreement which was supposed to usher in a new deal after the civil war which began in 1975. Under Taif, seats in parliament were divided equally and the powers of the Maronite president were reduced. These provisions have largely been resspected although incumbent President Michel Aoun has exceeded his rightful mandate by assuming executive powers.

Parliament was also supposed, eventually, to become bicameral with the establishment of a senate — with a Druze chairman — representing religious communities and a chamber of deputies elected on a non-sectarian basis. But these changes were never implemented by the politicians and warlords who have dominated since the war ended in late 1990.

After this election Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri, 84, said that his post, which he has held since 1992, need not be occupied by a Shia. Berri went further by saying he has been calling for eliminating sectarianism. If he were serious, this could end the system which has benefitted him and other party leaders. Despite his statement, his bloc has nominated him for the speakership. Rival factions plan to nominate candidates for deputy speaker, a post held by Greek Orthodox lawmakers.

The outgoing parliament’s mandate expired yesterday, leaving the newly elected legislators 15 days to choose a speaker, their first task. This will be followed by the selection of a prime minister, which could be a long-drawn out process due to the deep polarisation between competing camps. To make matters worse, Sunni politicians — from whose ranks a prime minister must come — have been in complete disarray because of the boycott of the election by ex-Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his Future Movement.

Once a prime minister is in place and his government is approved by parliament, a new president will have to be chosen by deputies as Aoun, 88, is set to leave office on October 31st this year.

Former Prime Minister Tamam Salam told Gulf Today in an exclusive interview at his family’s splendid Ottoman style mansion in central Beirut that Aoun could do his best to stall this process so he can remain in office. Mr. Salam pointed out that for many months Aoun has blocked prime ministerial appointments and quoted Aoun who said he would “not stay one day longer” in office when his term expires, “unless there is a void.”

Unfortunately, Lebanon has faced a political void and rapid economic decline since the summer of 2019 when the government tried to impose a tax on WhatsApp, the free tele-messaging service used by many, if not most, Lebanese to connect with each other and their relatives abroad.

Although the tax was repealed, it inspired the “WhatsApp revolution” launched on the evening of October 17th of that year and produced the “October 17th” or “Thawra” electoral lists in this election. Mr. Salam predicted they will not be able to influence policy because the newcomers are too few. This could mean continuation of the present political deadlock and accelerate the catastrophic downward slide of Lebanon’s economy.

Ahead of the inauguration of the new parliament, the outgoing government led by Najib Mikati in its last session mounted a challenge to the legislators by adopting a financial recovery plan intended to secure financial aid needed urgently to rescue bankrupt Lebanon. This is based on the April 2022 deal reached by Beirut and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for restructuring and recapitalising the defunct banking system while protecting small depositors “as much as possible” from confiscation of their savings. Although a “haircut” on small depositors is certain to ignite a new revolution, Lebanon’s reward for implementing the move would be delivery of a mere $3 billion from the IMF. This would be a drop in the dry bucket of need since tens of billions of dollars are needed to refloat the country’s economy.

This plan is likely to complicate and delay government formation, thereby postponing implementation of reforms required for Lebanon to secure $10 billion in aid pledged in 2018 at a Paris meeting of international investors as well as a total of $11 billion from the IMF.

Both have called for a government of neutral financial and economic experts which will tackle mismanagement and rampant corruption. This has not happened because entrenched politicians have resisted these demands at the expense of Lebanon, where the currency has lost 90 per cent of its value and 80 per cent of its population has slipped into poverty.

Former Lebanese Finance Minister Georges Corm told Gulf Today that Lebanon should eschew international financial aid and focus on rebuilding its agricultural and industrial sectors although this will take time and investment which has, so far, not been forthcoming. Hotelier Sherif Samaha agreed but contended that Lebanon could get instant financial relief by promoting foreign tourism while reviving agriculture and industry.

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