The Electoral Law and the Detente

prime-minister-saad-hariri-shakes-hands-with-mp-michel-aoun-at-his-downtown-beirut-residence-thursday-oct-20-2016-the-daily-star-mohamad-azakir

Prime Minister Saad Hariri shakes hands with MP Michel Aoun at his Downtown Beirut residence, Thursday, Oct. 20, 2016. (The Daily Star/ Mohamad Azakir)

The amount of political statements and political activity is not necessarily proportional to political productivity. If there would be anything out there to prove that, it would be the two months following the government formation in Lebanon.

Throwback to 2016

Things happened very fast in the Autumn of 2016. The President was elected on the 31st of October, the Prime Minister was named on the 3rd of November, the government was formed on the 19th of December, and it received the confidence vote by the 27th of December. It was – by Lebanese standards – one of the quickest government formations in the past decade. Why?

As I said in December, while postponing the cabinet formation would have seemed natural in the world of Lebanese politics, it would have sent a wrong message to the people: That the President and the Prime Minister do not want elections. Stalling with the government formation could make the President and the Prime Minister look as culprits should a parliamentary extension happen or the electoral law remain the same: The parliament can not legislate without a cabinet in a power in order to pass a new electoral law, and a caretaker cabinet has never in Lebanon’s modern history overseen parliamentary elections. The failure to form a cabinet would have thrown all the blame of a possible parliamentary extension or an election under the 2008 law (known as the 1960 law) on the President and the Prime Minister (since they are the only two persons in the entire republic who sign the government formation decree). Since the Prime Minister and the President are the leaders of the two biggest blocs in parliament and are facing new rivalries , it would seem wise to show at least early positive signs regarding their rule and this summer’s potential parliamentary elections. Now, and with the relatively early formation of the government, all of Lebanon’s MPs would equally share the blame of possible electoral failure 😀.

2017: A fresh start

It’s the 2nd of January 2017. The new Lebanese government is up and running. The Lebanese Forces is in love with the Free Patriotic Movement, the Free Patriotic Movement is in love with the Future Movement, and Hezbollah is in love with the Free Patriotic Movement. President Aoun managed to create the weirdest ruling coalition in the modern history of Lebanon. With the exceptions of the PSP, the Kataeb, and the half-exception of Amal, everyone seemed to be on board with the new status-quo. The last time Lebanon had so much political stability was in 2010. So it was the perfect time to draft an electoral law: The parliamentary elections were 5 months away, the deadline for voting a new electoral law without having to do a “technical” parliamentary extension was theoretically the 20th of February, and aside from the fact that the current parliament had 8 years to find a new electoral alternative (including a 4 year parliamentary extension designed solely for that purpose) and that the new/old establishment had 74 years to fix things electorally, the atmosphere was optimistic. Politicians had 50 days, from the 2nd of January till the 20th of February, to redeem themselves and finally draft a good electoral law and prepare for elections.

Expectation vs reality

Now you would think that the first priority of the new government – being a “unity” one – would be to draft a new electoral law, focus on the May 2017 parliamentary election, and avoid working on all kinds of new major projects before the new parliament gets elected. After all, the parliamentary elections were mentioned four times in the new cabinet’s policy statement. It was without any question supposed to be a cabinet whose sole purpose should be planning elections and overseeing them (the media calls it in Lebanon “حكومة إنتخابات”). Except Lebanese politicians did the exact opposite: After years of inactivity, the parliament finally met in January, but instead of discussing the electoral law – plot twist – it discussed everything but that. 73 draft laws not related to elections.

Earlier that month, the Lebanese cabinet, instead of actually trying to find common ground between its ruling parties, decided that it was easier to live in denial. In its first sitting since being formed in December, Lebanon’s new cabinet passed two  gas and oil decrees defining the blocks and specifying conditions for production and exploration tenders and contracts. It was not the time to pass the gas and oil decrees, and it was definitely not up to politicians who won the confidence of a government elected 8 years ago to decide the fate of billions of dollars of Lebanese resources.

Did I mention that they also passed in the middle of all that, a law that raised the compensation to the families of former lawmakers to 100%? As smooth as Lebanese politicians can be.

Now to be fair, a subcommittee made from representatives of the Future Movement, the FPM, Amal, and Hezbollah was meeting every once in a while to reach a consensual solution regarding the electoral law, but it was also not the time to procrastinate on electoral laws. They had 4 regular years from 2009 to 2013 and 4 extra years from 2013 to 2017 to discuss the ethics of elections, and already had dozens of proposals on the table.

Lebanon needed intensive, continuous parliamentary sessions focused exclusively on the electoral law in January, not a subcommittee formed by 4 establishment parties, whose sole objective seemed to send a message on who gets to make the decisions in Lebanese politics, making the Kataeb and the PSP panic in the process.

Lebanese lawmakers and cabinet members had already wasted the first 30 days doing every unnecessary thing they could find, and just when you think things couldn’t get any worse, they decided for the first time since twelve years, that it was finally time to discuss a state budget. Apparently voting a new fair electoral law and preparing parliamentary elections on time so that the new elected legitimate parliament would draft a new state budget seemed too mainstream for our politicians.

In late January, a warning voiced by President Michel Aoun on his willingness to obstruct the parliamentary elections and keep the legislative body vacant in case a new electoral law wasn’t passed, was criticized by al-Mustaqbal ministers who described the stance as unacceptable. While it is constitutionally possible for a Lebanese President to forbid the parliament from meeting for a while (in case MPs want to use a parliamentary session to extend their terms), there is no possible/legal way for Aoun to cancel an election and impose a legislative vacancy or to force an electoral law without parliamentary approval. On the contrary, Aoun’s threats should be seen as preemptively deculpabilising the presidency should a parliament fail to pass a new electoral law. In other words, Aoun’s warning of escalation is the proof everyone needed that there might not be a new electoral law in the near future after all. In fact, it seems that the FPM are already embracing themselves for that scenario, with their new minister of energy basically campaigning on TV with his electricity and gas and oil projects before declaring his candidacy for the next parliamentary elections.

Just like 2013 (or the Lebanese Political Time Machine)

Fast forward one month.

It was now the 1st of February and since the deadline to vote a new electoral law was theoretically 20 days away, Lebanese politicians decided it was finally time…to go back to 2013. Literally. LITERALLY. LITERALLY. While the speaker was supporting proportional representation and being as pessimistic as 2013 when discussing the possibility of Lebanese politicians reaching common ground, the Future Movement politicians decided that they were going to support a hybrid proposal and reject any law fully based on proportional representation, also just like they did in 2013. Geagea supported the hybrid proposal, just like he did in 2013. While reiterating its rejection of a new extension of the parliament’s term, Hezbollah renewed its call for an electoral law “fully based on proportional representation and a single electoral district or several large electorates.”….just like 2013.

Meanwhile, just like 2013, the Kataeb and the PSP were panicking at the sight of the word “proportionality”,  with Jumblatt engaging in late-night tweets  hinting on how  proportional representation is anti-Taef, which is a well-known defense mechanism used by Lebanese politicians in times of political isolation. Taef mentions nothing about about proportional representation or parliamentary electoral laws, except the fact that the 50/50 Christian-Muslim ratio should be safeguarded until a senate is established. So Jumblatt, just like 2013, was sticking with the 1960 (2008) law.

And instead of pressuring Lebanon’s lawmakers by staying in Lebanon to oversee the electoral law talks, President Aoun decided that it was enough to threaten them with a parliamentary vacancy and took the decision to visit Egypt and Jordan in what is arguably the most critical time of his beginning mandate. Even Mikati was still endorsing the law his government drafted and proposed in the summer of 2013.

It’s as if Lebanese politicians robbed us of 4 years of representation (via the two parliamentary extensions) with the alibi of finding a new electoral law before deciding at the last-minute that they were going to ignore all that.

A pro-Hezbollah president

While Frangieh and Bassil had found a new place where their new rivalry would thrive (the electoral law), the Lebanese President was taking March 8-oriented stances for the first time since has was elected: On the 3rd of February, he urged the international community to facilitate the return of refugees in coordination with the Syrian authorities by establishing safe zones (something Hezbollah has also recently endorsed), and on the 12th of February, he said that Hezbollah’s arms complement, rather than contradict, the Lebanese Army. That statement was not only huge (it’s probably the first time in 10 years that a Lebanese President takes such an official pro-Hezbollah stance), it surprisingly went *unnoticed* among the March 14 leadership, with none of the key politicians of that coalition massively criticizing the President for what he said.

What was even more surprising than the President’s statement, is the fact that *the March 14 parties* spent those two first two weeks praising Hezbollah’s flexibility on the electoral law while also doing the IMPOSSIBLE (Machnouk saying he’s not in confrontation with Aoun) to make sure that the ties with the President are still intact (Hariri also ruling out any rift with Aoun)“preserving the coalition between Future Bloc and the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) was more precious than losing some seats in the parliament”. We had to wait for the 14th of February commemoration of the assassination of his Rafic Hariri for the Prime Minister to comment on Aoun’s remarks, and while Hariri had basically no political choice but to criticize Hezbollah’s arms (especially on that particular day), he did not directly mention the presidency’s recent statements, leaving us with this indirect and weak message “We’ve made concessions to preserve stability but we won’t bargain over the STL, our stance on the Assad regime, illegal arms or Hizbullah’s involvement in Syria”. There is definitely a deal to keep things calm in Lebanese politics right now: Just as comparison, two years ago (in 2015), also on his 14th of February speech, Hariri said the” intervention in Syria is insanity and Hezbollah has brought this insanity to Lebanon” and  “Tying the Golan Heights to south Lebanon is insanity as well“.

NO ALLIANCES = NO ELECTORAL LAW.

La Morale? The March 8 and March 14 alliances are officially dead. No one wants to turn against the new President (not when he can block government formations and bring governments down), and the resulting dismantling of Lebanon’s mainstream alliances is turning the new electoral law discussions into a chaotic battlefield. For the past few decades, it was Lebanon’s majority alliances that dictated the rules of elections. Now that the alliances are unclear and we just don’t know where the parties stand, every one of those parties is working on its own to secure the implementation of an electoral law that only serves its interests. Parties, by themselves, cannot turn their draft proposals into official laws. Stable coalitions, on the other hand, could actually make a draft electoral proposal (that actually  helps its stay in power) official by voting for it or at least negotiate with another coalition on a common ground. It’s easier for two sides to negotiate on something than having 27 parties discussing 2727 electoral law formats. So as long as the Lebanese parties do not form clear coalitions, it will be very difficult for them to agree on an electoral law.

Michel Aoun’s path to the presidency progressively brought down the March 8 and March 14 coalitions, and in a way, made the process of finding a consensual electoral law harder than it was to find a consensual President in 2014. It’s valentine in Lebanese politics this month, but the fact that everyone is loving everyone right now is ironically making it harder to agree on something as controversial as an electoral law.

Another possible theory, as I said four months ago, is that there might be a secret part of the presidential deal to extend the parliament’s term one more time or to keep the “1960” law in place.

Right now, and without any new electoral law to oversee the elections happening in three months, two scenarios seem very likely: Either the parliament passes a new parliamentary extension (because two parliamentary extensions are too mainstream), or we head to elections under the 2008 (“1960”) law. Translation? We were robbed of four years of political representation by our politicians thieves.

Don’t forget to make sure your voting registration information is correct so you can vote this May!

This was the 27th post in a series of bimonthly posts covering developments in Lebanese politics. This post is about the months of January and  (the first two weeks of ) February 2017.

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