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.
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, a new state budget, oil and gas decrees. Because who needs elections, right?
The denial was strong in the Lebanese government in February, and just when you think that our politicians would finally drop all those distractions in March, finish with the electoral law, and finally call for elections – especially that the theoretical deadline to change the law and call for elections was the 20th of February – what do the geniuses in the Lebanese parliament do?
They pull the oldest trick in the book of Lebanese political maneuvers: They change the subject.
When I say the word “genius”, I mean it – no sarcasm intended. At the very end of February, Lebanese politicians were still bickering on what electoral system is best for the country, with Amal and Hezbollah asking for full proportional representation, the PSP refusing it, and the FPM, LF, FM and other parties trying to look for something in between. However, out of nowhere, they decide that it was not only time to discuss the state budget, it was also the time to fund the new salary wage scale by imposing new taxes. By the 20th of February, and just when it was clear the Lebanese President was not going to sign the electoral decree that calls for parliamentary elections (in theory, it was in order to pressure the MPs into voting a new electoral law, while in practice all it did was paving the way to a third cancelled parliamentary election in a row by cancelling planned elections), Lebanese politicians started discussing the new controversial taxes they wanted to impose as part of the new budget. The ruling parties made sure that the public’s attention started shifting to the new economic policies instead of the parliamentary elections that were scheduled to happen in three months.
But that was just an appetizer. Also out of nowhere, in that very same week, the Lebanese President , who found that it was probably too mainstream to do his constitutional job and call for parliamentary elections, decided that it was time to discuss Israeli aggressions and warn Israel that its threats would be met with adequate response. Aoun had taken a staunch pro-Hezbollah stance earlier that month when he said that Hezbollah’s arms complement, rather than contradict, the Lebanese Army, but his more recent comments were not about Hezbollah at all. The godfather of the FPM was pulling another old trick in the book. By giving an impression of possible political instability, the President was sending a message throughout the country that Lebanon might not be as stable as we think right now (Plot twist: The country has never been as stable since 2010), indirectly supporting one of the most used alibis by Lebanese politicians to postpone elections: That the security situation wasn’t good enough for elections: “الوضع الأمني لا يسمح”. Lebanese politicians used that sentence to postpone elections in 2013, and used it again in 2014. Michel Aoun, by emphasising something that shouldn’t even be mentioned in the news, Israeli threats (That we had since 1943), gave the political class their favorite alibi to delay elections. Next thing you know, Israeli troops fire 5 smoke bombs at Lebanese protesters, and reports in the media spread that Hezbollah obtained Naval missiles that could threaten Israel: The mainstream media took the bait.
The appetizer becomes the main dish
As I said before, Lebanon had Israeli threats even before the Prime Minister was born, and while it was a nice distraction from the electoral law debate, the tax hike would be a far better option for the politicians to distract the people with than a possible Israeli war. For the next 3 weeks, Lebanon’s headlines were all about the proposed new taxes, pushing the Lebanese opposition, awkwardly made of the Kataeb, the communist party, Bedna Nhaseb, You Stink, Beirut Madinati, Sabaa, and many other civil society movements, to unite against the ruling parties for the first time since the government formation. The Lebanese establishment, in its attempt to distract the country from its electoral procrastination, had successfully united the opposition against it and gave the people an alibi and a motivation to protest.
Taxation without representation
In a way, the ruling parties were imposing taxation without representation. They were raising taxes without giving the people the right to have a say about it. It was pure hypocrisy especially since they were leading the country towards a third cancelled parliamentary election. Lebanese politicians made us live in garbage for a year in a half, deprived us from electricity for decades, breathe corruption, and now wanted to raise taxes that will eventually feed that corruption in a way or another. The government made everyone angry, and in the process, also made everyone forget about the elections that were going to be postponed in two months. Geniuses.
And that’s how a cabinet, that was theoretically supposed to solely focus on elections, ended up voting Lebanon’s first state budget since 12 years at the very end of March.
Electricity and elections
Once the state budget was sorted out, the cabinet, that theoretically leaves in 2 months and draws its legitimacy from a parliament that was elected in the previous decade, decided that it was also time to sort out Lebanon’s electricity problems. Just like that, the Lebanese council of ministers voted on a temporary solution (of bringing in Turkish ships that would generate electricity), in order to keep Lebanon lit this summer. The FPM minister of energy, while blaming refugees for the electricity shortage (because as we all know, Lebanon had 24/7 electricity before 2007 😂), said the plan would add extra hours of electricity for the summer months.
I really don’t want to be the party pooper here, but temporarily adding extra hours of electricity, without a clear long-term plan, just after a planned parliamentary extension, and just before parliamentary extension, with the minister of energy being the ruling party’s candidate for elections, doesn’t seem like last-minute *election bribery* (a la Zaffetleh el Tarika Zaffetleh el Tarik)?
The Senate and the law
Meanwhile, Gebran Bassil had decided to embrace the Yolo life, and “threatened” at the end of February to propose a new electoral law inspired from the Orthodox gathering law, eventually revealing his creepy hybrid Orthodox law proposal (that would obviously be refused by the mainstream Muslim parties) two weeks after his *threat*. Gebran Bassil, who is getting more and more experienced in Lebanese political maneuvers, proposed his new draft law alongside a suggestion of creating a senate that would be led by a non-Maronite Christian. Bassil’s proposal was supposed to make the Druze political leadership panic since it was agreed in Taef that the President of the Senate, once created, would be a Druze ( = Jumblatt 😛 ). In a way, it’s as if Hariri proposed full proportional representation for the FPM in exchange of a electing a Sunni President. The PSP, however, did not take Gebran Bassil’s bait. By asking by asking for a Christian senate leader and a hybrid PR electoral law, the FPM leader was smartly trying to force Jumblatt to accept full proportional representation in the electoral law (an electoral designed endorsed by Hezbollah, Amal, and the FPM, and vetoed by the PSP) in exchange of a Druze senate leader.
Jumblatt, however, did not take the bait, and outmaneuvered Bassil by reminding him that according to the Constitution, a senate could only be created after confessionalism would be removed from the house, which contradicts Bassil’s electoral draft electoral law.
The pre-extension love
There’s a pattern in Lebanese politics that gets clearer with every parliamentary extension: Just before/after lawmakers proceed to cancel elections, they start passing reform plans, similar to “free candy” that eventually make their extra-stay in parliament more legitimate. In 2013, that “free candy” was the law on domestic violence that the parliament passed after the extension, and now the “free candy” seems to be:
- Cancelling taxes that made them look like the good guys although the ruling parties were the ones who proposed it in the first place
- A new budget for the first time since 2005 (although it is reported that at least $11 billion in past government spendings has gone unaccounted for).
- Jailing for days an opposition activist for a writing a Facebook post against the Zuamas and then giving the impression that they believe in Free speech, are so loving and caring by releasing him.
- An electricity plan.
Taymour Bey and General Aoun
March was a very busy month: Walid Jumblatt officially started transferring his powers in the PSP to his son Taymour, while just like that, the Lebanese political class decided to appoint a new commander of the army (with a last name ending with Aoun, just to confuse Lebanon with “General Aoun”), something that would have a created a civil war two years ago. That proves how nothing really matters in Lebanese politics, and how a same event can either go unnoticed or lead Lebanon to a civil strife depending on the mood of the Zuamas. Proof? When Previous independent/March 14 leaders sent a letter to the Arab league summit, bypassing the current President and Prime Minister, Berri and his friends in the March 8 coalition weren’t very happy, but when the Patriarch said this month that Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria divided the Lebanese, the entire March 8 leadership couldn’t care less to respond.
2017, I guess.
Le tour du monde en 80 jours and elections in 65 jours
Meanwhile, while he still hadn’t called for the elections scheduled in 65 days, the Lebanese President went to the Arab league summit in Jordan with the Prime Minister, right after he went to the vatican to meet the Pope. Did I also forget to mention that he also previously went to Cairo in February? And Doha? and Saudi Arabia?
So as Lebanon’s politicians begin blaming each other for the absence of a new electoral law and shaming one another for the upcoming parliamentary extension, one thing is for sure: They are all to blame in the shame game they’re playing, and they can’t keep distracting the Lebanese for ever.
This was the 28th post in a series of bimonthly / monthly posts covering developments in Lebanese politics. This post is about the last two weeks of February and the month of March 2017.