To Fall or not to Fall: What’s Next for Salam’s Cabinet?

I was in doubt whether to put a picture of Gebran Bassil and Salam together or a vintage image of Saeb Salam during the 1958 revolution, but you  just can't say no to Angelina Jolie. Image source: AP

I was in doubt whether to put a picture of Gebran Bassil and Tammam Salam together or a vintage image of Saeb Salam during the 1958 revolution, but you just can’t say no to Angelina Jolie. Image source: AP

This is the 13th post in a series of monthly posts covering the presidential elections. This post is about the month of July 2015.

For the past two months, things have been very rough in Lebanese politics. Aoun and Geagea signed a declaration of intent, a mini-feud erupted between two Future movement ministers, a new era started in the Kataeb, and the FPM launched a full-blown maneuver in the cabinet in order to secure the appointment of Shamel Roukoz as commander of the army. All of this was also accompanied by a prison scandal and a garbage crisis. Can Lebanon get even more creative?

But this week’s rumor beats all the other political events of this month (Aoun’s interview in which he said he would vote for Frangieh, Jumblatt’s statements, and FPM rallies): In the dark alleys of the Lebanese republic, they say that Lebanon’s Prime Minister Tammam Salam is threatening to resign this week.

No President + No Cabinet = No Parliament

According to article 75 of the constitution, The Chamber meeting to elect the President of the Republic shall be considered an electoral body and not a legislative assembly. It must proceed immediately, without discussion of any other act, to elect the Head of the State. In other words, the parliament becomes an electoral body when it meets 10 days before the expiration of the president’s term, by virtue of law (yeah, right), in order to elect the president. The founding fathers probably meant that the parliament also loses all its legislative powers once a presidential vacancy happens, but since it’s not clearly written there, the Lebanese parliament meets sometimes during presidential vacancies in order to legislate (the biggest example is when the parliament convened on November 5, 2014 in order to extend its term till 2017 ).

According to another article (article 69), When the Council resigns or is considered resigned, the Chamber of Deputies shall automatically be considered convened in extraordinary session until a new Council has been formed and has gained the Chamber’s confidence. When a cabinet usually resigns, the parliament is also discouraged to legislate because the founding fathers probably meant that the extraordinary session was for the vote of confidence and nothing else. But since it’s also not clearly written there, the Lebanese parliament meets sometimes during cabinet vacancies in order to legislate (the biggest example is when the parliament convened on May 31, 2013 and extended its term for 17 months).

What I mean here by these awfully complicated paragraphs is that Tammam Salam’s threat of resignation is huge: Once he leaves office, the parliament, and due to the two – two is too much – articles of the constitution, would probably be forced (for good this time) not to legislate until a president is elected, and since the two coalitions don’t seem to agree on any candidate right now and the parliament isn’t assuming its electoral responsibilities, that means that the Prime Minister’s resignation would not only stop the executive power from functioning, it would also entirely paralyze the parliament.

(And to make things even more complicated, the parliament needs its legislative power in case it wants to amend the constitution and elect a civil-servant like Kahwaji president.)

The bigger picture…

To be clear here, the parliament barely meets during the regular days, and  meets even less now with the presidential vacancy. Aoun and Geagea had previously agreed that they would not attend any legislative session as long as there is no president in power (although they are arguably the main politicians to blame for the vacancy since they are refusing to agree on anyone else other than themselves). This mini-maneuver that both politicians had agreed on – by freezing the parliament in order to pressure the election of a president – will hence heavily backfire: Not only will they lose their blackmailing power, their stubbornness will also be now responsible for one of the biggest deadlocks Lebanon has ever seen: No parliament, no cabinet, no general elections and no president for a record time (Lebanon broke the 1988 record of presidential vacancy three weeks ago). The only thing that could solve this major deadlock is an agreement on a president, and the March 8 alliance, being the one that is officially denying the quorum (probably since M8 fears a last-minute agreement between M14 and Jumblatt on a candidate such as Henri Helou), will mainly be responsible for the deadlock.

…and the smaller one

One must not forget why Salam wants to resign: The FPM ministers want participate in putting the cabinet’s agenda, something the Sunni PM does on his own. They argue that the Maronite president is constitutionally authorized to introduce, from outside the agenda, any urgent matter to the council of Ministers (article 53), and as the biggest Christian party represented in the cabinet, they should hence be allowed to introduce matters from outside the cabinet’s agenda (in order to propose the appointment of Roukoz as commander of the army). They say the rules should change when there is no president in power: An earlier agreement was previously reached according to which a veto right was given to all the ministers (in normal times it’s the absolute majority of the ministers that takes decisions). When the PM refused to let them introduce matters from outside the agenda, they considered that Salam was stepping on the Christian rights and establishing his own “Daesh dictatorship”. But unlike the former agreement, it is political suicide the FPM are asking from Salam: When the deal was reached in May on giving every minister veto power, the PM was giving up the cabinet‘s authority and giving it to the cabinet. Now the FPM was asking Salam to give up the Sunni Prime Minister‘s authority and give it to a Maronite minister. The FPM has been talking about being denied their “Christian rights”, but for Salam, it’s the “Sunni rights” that are at stake here, as well as his powers as president of the executive power: Unlike the popular myth in Lebanon, most of the president’s authorities were mainly transferred after Taef to the cabinet and not the Prime Minister (for example, the army answers to the cabinet, etc..). The only “real” authority the Prime Minister has is the one figuring in article 64, 6: He shall call the Council of Ministers into session and sets its agenda, and he shall inform the President beforehand of the subjects included on the agenda and of the urgent subjects that will be discussed. Everything else is either shared with the cabinet or the president, double-checked by the parliament or too general to be considered as a true power.

Tammam Saeb Salam

The FPM are asking Tammam Salam to give up his powers in the name of a vacancy they are helping to maintain. But Lebanon tends to forget who Salam’s father was. Here’s a small reminder: Saeb Salam resigned in 1973 because the president, Sleiman Frangieh, refused to dismiss the commander of the army. Do the FPM really think that Salam Jr will give up his powers, appoint their candidate as commander of the army and live happily ever after with them because he fears that the resignation of M8 ministers might bring the cabinet down?

What the FPM are failing to see, year after year, cabinet after cabinet, is that their feud with the different Prime Ministers – Siniora, Hariri, Mikati and Salam – does not only make them look like the protectors of Christian interests: It makes of every Prime Minister a hero among his community and strengthens him. Lebanon forgot how Mikati resigned in 2013 because there was a veto within his cabinet on keeping Rifi in his position. If the 2013 parliamentary elections had happened, Mikati would have probably won in his district.

If Mikati, who was M8’s ally, refused to cross such red lines, why would Salam, who isn’t even a direct ally to M8, and whose father had a history of disagreeing with Lebanese Maronite presidents, concede defeat?

So what happens if Salam resigns?

His cabinet – that already assumes the role of the president – becomes a caretaker one, the parliament loses the remainder of its legislative power and the FPM’s demands in the government become useless (since a caretaker cabinet cannot theoretically meet). The FPM lose their chance of making a scene by throwing Salam outside like they did to Hariri in 2011,  and instead of showing themselves as victims, they become the ones responsible for literally everything: Every institution in Lebanon becomes paralyzed because of the M8 boycott of the presidential elections, and the only one who would still keep a bit of influence is Tammam Salam as president of the caretaker cabinet. Also if no solution is reached by September, the commander of the army will probably see his term extended (= bye-bye Shamel Roukoz as LAF commander), since a caretaker cabinet doesn’t officially have enough authority to discuss such an important post, especially that the country would become highly unstable once we cease to have a functioning government alongside a paralyzed parliament and a non-existent president.

If he resigns, Tammam Salam will make everyone else lose everything: The cabinet and the parliament. All the tough responsibilities (The refugee crisis and the garbage crisis to name a few) will now be in the parliament’s hands that will also be forced to elect a president before seeking to vote on any law or cabinet. Salam, on the other hand, has nothing to lose: His cabinet would become a caretaker one anyway the first minute a president is elected.

429 days since the 25th of May. 265 days since the 5th of November.

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16 comments

  1. But wouldn’t the FPM, mainly steered by Hezbollah, benefit from the lack of a president and the paralysis of the country? I was thinking about the deadlock today, but I thought the parliament’s term was nearing its end.

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    1. They would probably lose the Roukoz nomination if the government falls which puts them in the same position they were in 8 months ago. And we’re still far, far from 2017 Khaled! Hezbollah might benefit since they’re more or less on good terms with kahwagi, but only time will tell

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      1. For some reason I thought the parliament was only extended until November… And true, but they seem to be embracing the fall of the government through their media outlets, namely al-Akhbar

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        1. Of course M8 would embrace the fall of the government (It’s an M14-majority government). What matters here is how the cabinet falls. If it falls because M8 ministers (and some friendly M8 centrists) resign, it would be very different than if it falls because Salam resigns. Ironically, the one who resigns would look like the victor (or at least the victim (Salam)). My two cents

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          1. But if the cabinet falls in such a time of crises it cannot take any real decisions to resolve anything; which means there would be a huge gap in the political system. My question is how that gap would be filled. And M8 don’t wanna be the ones to overthrow another government it seems, so my bet is on Salam’s resignation sooner or later.

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                  1. But 1- M8 would prevent that by force if necessary 2- That mean’s handing over the presidency to Joumblatt on a silver plate. The Maronites cannot be keen on a person nominated by a Durzi. This needs a drink…

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                    1. They dont need force :p, all they have to do is to deny quorum. In the end that’s the direct reason of the deadlock. Without a clear deal no one is going to risk the election of the other

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                    2. Constitutionally, M14 would only need a quorum of 65 MPs (much like what they threatened to do back in 2008) I highly doubt they would challenge M8 in such a fashion but if they do, that is when force comes in; I should’ve explained more. And both parties don’t seem interested in a deal, Hezbollah certainly has no interest in a deal since it benefits from the governmental gap to steer away attention from its endeavors in Syria.

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                    3. I don’ think they would elect the president with the half+1 strategy. If they wanted to do so they would have already done it. They also need Jumblatt (who is most likely against the idea) and it would put Lebanon on the brink of the civil war: And although it might be constitutional, there is no precedent and it would bring in a weak president considered illegitimate by half the country.
                      And a deal could maybe include something like the Baabda declaration but more friendly towards Hezbollah’s attitude in Syria? Dunno, pure speculation…

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                    4. Would M14 fall for another hollow declaration though? As for the half plus 1 strategy, yes it is very unlikely. And yep, speculation is all we got at the moment, my point is that it is getting too complicated and too hostile for a deal.

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