Why Lebanon’s Policy Statement Matters

Article 64 Constitution

When the March 8 Alliance considered the government to be illegitimate in 2006 (following the resignation of all Shia ministers) and subsequently requested Siniora to leave the Grand Serail, the speaker of the parliament Nabih Berri concluded that Lebanon lacked a proper executive power, and hence – selon l’usage – decided to shut the door of the parliament until Lebanon’s  politicians had reached an agreement on a new government. The March 14 Alliance back then declared that the speaker’s move was political blackmail, and that it was illegitimate, asking him to call for regular parliamentary sessions instead.

5 years later, in 2011, the March 8 Alliance was finding difficulties in forming its unilateral government. After 5 months of inter-M8 deadlock, when the speaker decided to call for a parliamentary session, the March 14 Alliance stood firmly against his move. “How can the parliament convene when there is no cabinet in power?” was M14’s response.

In 2013, 2 months after the resignation of Prime Minister Mikati – and with no cabinet in power, both of the March 8 and 14 Alliances would attend a legislative session destined to postpone the parliamentary elections.

In 2006, M14 wanted to break the rule. 5 years later, M8 tried to break the same rule.  Two years after that, when both parties had the same motives (of keeping the status-quo) they will successfully break that same rule, together, unquestioned. The point of this long intro is to clarify one simple undeniable fact. Lebanon’s politicians will interpret the constitution and the customs (Like “no legislative sessions with no cabinet in power”) the way they want to, whenever they are able to do so. The same thing that was wrong for M8 in 2006, was right in 2011 and 2013. The same thing that was wrong for M14 in 2011, was right in 2006 and 2013.

Now back to 2014.

According to the constitution, article 64 clause 2, “The government must present its general statement of policy (بيان وزاري) to the Chamber to gain its confidence within thirty days of the date of issuance of the Decree in which the government was formed”. Like 2006, 2011 and 2013, everyone can explain the constitution the way it suits him since the constitution does not say what happens in case the cabinet fails to draft its policy statement. However the constitution also determines the cases that force the cabinet to resign (article 69). The 30 days-deadline isn’t there.

This loophole/ambiguity in the constitution, just like the “No legislative sessions with no cabinet in power” custom, can be used both by M8 and M14 in their political maneuvers regarding the presidential elections.  Let me elaborate.

M8 considers that the government is a resigned one after the 30 days deadline (مهلة اسقاط) . M8 says that article 69 does not specify the only conditions that force the cabinet to resign. Article 64 also indirectly implies an extra reason for the government to resign. For M8 the president  has to start the process from scratch (new parliamentary consultations to name the next PM, etc.).

M14 refuses M8’s decision and considers that the 30 days’ sole function is to motivate the cabinet and pressure it to work faster on its policy statement (مهلة حث). M14 considers that the cases regarding the resignation of the government are only demonstrated in article 69, and article 64 of the constitution has nothing to do with forcing the cabinet to resign. For M14 the government doesn’t fall after the 30 days, and once it finishes drafting its policy statement, life continues normally (vote of confidence).

The most dangerous scenario lies in both sides taking unilateral decisions (Unilateral policy statement, unilateral withdrawal from the cabinet, boycott of the presidential elections). In case the current deadlock doesn’t change anytime soon, on the 16th March (30 days after the 15th of February), Lebanon would be welcoming the spring season with a new dilemma: Is Tammam Salam’s “policyless” government legitimate? What happens if the two coalitions fail to agree on a common path to approach the crisis?

It’s 2008 All Over Again.

The problem with having two points of view regarding the legitimacy of the cabinet is that:

  1. In case the parliament agrees on a consensual president, it will probably need to amend the constitution (for example if it’s the commander of the army). The prime minister can’t sign the constitutional amendment due to the fact that he would be considered by M8 to be a caretaker PM. It’s the same deadlock that Lebanon faced in 2008 when the parliament wanted to elect Michel Sleiman, but M8 just couldn’t digest the idea that Siniora would be signing a constitutional amendment. “How can Siniora sign the constitutional amendment if he’s considered to be an illegitimate PM?”
  2. In case the parliament fails to agree on a president, a caretaker cabinet that lacks legitimacy would have to assume the presidential powers. How can the president hand in his powers to a cabinet that lacks legitimacy?
  3. In case the M8 ministers manage to bring the cabinet down by resigning from it, it would be a race against time: Relations would deteriorate to an unprecedented level between M8 and M14, Tammam Salam would have been politically humiliated, they’ll have to agree on a PM, on the government formation, and draft the policy statement. All that, in a couple of weeks while it previously took them 11 months to accomplish half of the work. In 2 words: Mission impossible.

The Importance Of This Particular Policy Statement

Usually you don’t go to war unless you have a weapon and an enemy to fight him with it. I’d like to imagine Lebanon’s next president as the gun, and the policy statement as the trajectory of the bullet. We all know that Lebanon’s next president is more likely to be the result of an agreement between M8 and M14. Since the (current) cabinet that is supposed to prepare the elections is a consensual one, it seems logical that the ideals the current government would stand by are going to be – more or less – the core of the president’s inaugural speech and his policies for the next 6 years. In other words, the state’s general policy for the next 6 years lies in this piece of paper. Explains the violent discourse happening between the president and Hezbollah, no? No side wants to give concessions that the next president might consider de facto ones during his rule.

This isn’t a fight for a 2 months cabinet. This is a fight for the next six years. So don’t expect any side to concede defeat easily.