The Republic of Procrastination

President Michel Aoun watch a demonstration match from the delegation of the Lebanese Union for Tai Boxing, in Baabda, Lebanon (Dalati Nohra)

I wanted to add a picture of Aoun using his Constitutional powers to postpone the parliamentary extension session, but this image seems somehow more representative of the debate on the new electoral law during the months of April and May 2017.

Welcome to the month of April 2017 in Lebanese politics.

The theoretical deadline to vote a new electoral law and call for elections was the 20th of February (with elections scheduled theoreticall on the 21st of May), but Lebanese politicians – who are too cool and chill to believe in deadlines – had decided that it was still too early for them to do the only job they postponed parliamentary elections 4 years ago for: Instead of actually discussing elections in the Parliament and the Council of Ministers, they pulled the oldest trick in the book of Lebanese political maneuvers: They changed the subject.

Recap

In 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 first one since 12 years. By doing that, 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. For the next 3 weeks, Lebanon’s headlines were all about the proposed new taxes, but that was just an appetizer: By that time, the Lebanese President had decided that it was time to discuss Israeli aggressions and warn Israel that its threats would be met with adequate response, giving an impression of possible political instability and 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”. Once the state budget issue 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.

Lebanese politicians had four months to make things right – from December to April – yet somehow found themselves procrastinating for more than 100 days about something that should have been accomplished 8 years ago.

CIVIL UNREST QUICK HIDE WE CANT HAVE ELECTIONS

“Today, if you go around most of the host communities, there is huge tension between the Lebanese and the Syrians … I fear civil unrest.”

April surprisingly starts doesn’t start with electoral law discussions. Inspired by Aoun’s political instability warning a couple of weeks earlier, and in a 180 degree turn of foreign and domestic policy, the Prime Minister Saad Hariri decides that it was time to discuss the impact of Syrian refugees, publicly stating that the country is close to “breaking point”. Before gaining back the Premiership in December, Hariri and the Future Movement had taken pro-refugees stances for the better part of 6 years of the Syrian conflict. Now that the Prime Minister was in power and no longer needed to take such pro-refugees stances in order to gain the support of the Sunni electorate, the presence of more than a million Syrian refugees could be turned into another asset for Lebanese politicians  by using it as a false impression that Lebanon is not stable enough to stage parliamentary elections – although municipal elections were held last year in even more unstable circumstances, which is exactly what Hariri was probably trying to do. By then, it was pretty much confirmed that parliamentary elections would not be held on time in May 2017, especially that Lebanese politicians had burned through electoral preparation deadlines, and they needed an alibi to justify the cancellation/ postponement of the elections. Four days later, the Prime Minister made his strategy even clearer when he threatened to move Syrian refugees into Europe (yes, he actually…threatened the European Union 🤔), while at the same time, his party, the FM, was criticizing Hezbollah’s earlier show of force, thus feeding the sentiment of false instability.

The Un-Orthodox law

Meanwhile, in the other part of the political spectrum, Bassil was calling for a vote on an electoral law in case there was no consensual agreement on one, a move that was likely to anger the minor parties in the parliament – specifically the PSP.

The FPM also proposed in the first week of April a new form  of electoral proposal – a ta’ahili (qualification) electoral law –  organizing elections on two rounds, the first one designed similarly to the Orthodox gathering law ( with each sect voting for its representative, in its constituency) – but with majoritarian representation and a number of candidates making it to the second round equaling twice the number of seats available, and a second round made from full proportional representation in the same constituencies with the ability given to all sects to vote for all the candidates regardless of their sects. It is a proposal that was designed with the sole purpose of thwarting any Christian opposition to the FPM from making it into Parliament: If the FPM-LF alliance gets a simple majority of votes in the Christian-dominated constituencies (something totally possible since they’re the biggest two Christian parties and the Muslims will be forbidden from voting for Christian candidates in the first round), all the other candidates – including those supported by civil movements, minor Christian parties such as the Kataeb and the Marada, as well as Christian politicians favored by Muslim voters – would not even make it into the second round, making the proportional representation in that round a mere farce of correct political representation. By redesigning the Orthodox gathering law into the ta’ahili one, the FPM were trying to propose the only electoral law proposal that could allow the FPM-LF alliance to get – in  the most creative gerrymandering way imaginable – all of the 64 Christian MPS, as long as both parties combined have a simple (not even an absolute) majority among the Christian electorate.

According to the original Orthodox Gathering law, the FPM and the LF would actually get their fair share of Christian seats, proportionally to their “exact weight” in the Christian electorate, although according to that apartheid-inspired proposal, the Christian voters would be overrepresented. That would mean that the FPM and LF alliance would face a very big opposition in Parliament, since the alliance is not likely to get more than 65 to 70% of the Christian votes (for example the alliance lost the municipal election in the Christian-majority first district of Beirut in 2016, and there is no reason why that would not happen again). In Bassil’s ta’ahili law, not only (1) the formula is based on an apartheid-like separation of the Muslim electorate and (2) the Christian voters are overrepresented, but even winning a simple majority of the Christian electorate in the first round (based on a majoritarian law) would eventually hand all the places of the second round to the FPM-LF candidates, with those candidates fighting one another in the second round (proportional representation). An unofficial preliminary round to choose the FPM and LF candidates to run in the parliamentary elections thus becomes the official second round of the Lebanese parliamentary elections.

It was a law that gave the FPM and the LF up to 64 Christian seats as long as their candidates managed to beat any other Christian candidate by 0.0001% in every constituency during the first round.

When it comes to rigging elections, that was textbook gerrymandering – so much gerrymandering I’m pretty sure most of you still didn’t understand a word I said even though I just spent three paragraphs trying to explain it, which is exactly why only the FPM and the LF supported that proposal (Jumblatt described the mind that thought of that proposal as a sick mind 😛 , and Hezbollah went against the FPM on the matter, adhering to full proportionality).

The FPM-proposed law favored the LF so much that for the first time since the June 2015 LF-FPM rapprochement, Samir Geagea publicly stated that week that he was going to seek a parliamentary alliance with the FPM.  It favored the FPM so much that Bassil wrote in Annahar an article that is unprecedented in its sectarian approach, calling his electoral proposal “the freedom law” and comparing it to the crucifixion and resuscitation of Christ: “ان ساعة قانون الحريّة قد دقّت، وسنكون على موعد قيامته في زمن القيامة، فالصلب سبيل الزامي اليها، سنحمله ونحمل أوجاعه من أجلها. والصلب فيه شوك التجريح، وخلّ التشويه، ولوحة التقسيم ، ومسمار الاستيلاء، وحربة الشهادة… فليكن!”“ان ساعة قانون الحريّة قد دقّت، وسنكون على موعد قيامته في زمن القيامة، فالصلب سبيل الزامي اليها، سنحمله ونحمل أوجاعه من أجلها. والصلب فيه شوك التجريح، وخلّ التشويه، ولوحة التقسيم ، ومسمار الاستيلاء، وحربة الشهادة… فليكن!” (N.B.: the entire article is a poetic masterpiece)

Procrastination, procrastination

With the FPM insisting on a law that no one was going to agree on, time was quickly passing (or in the words of our wise speaker of the parliament, “the clock was ticking”), but Lebanon’s Parliament – in denial – decided that it was the time to discuss the cabinet’s progress (a cabinet that theoretically becomes a caretaker one 60 days later)  instead of holding  a session to vote a new electoral law. Close enough.

Fattoush, the almighty extender

Fattoush is a Levantine bread salad made from toasted or fried pieces of pita bread combined with mixed greens and other vegetables, such as radishes and tomatoes. An extender is a person or thing that extends something.

In the context of Lebanese politics, Fattoush is not a salad. He is the dessert. The crème de la crème. The MP who gets elected with one coalition and then switches sides to the opposite coalition. The dream Member of Parliament of every self-extending-loving Parliament. Fattoush is the MP who is ready to propose an electoral draft for the Parliament to extend its term. Every time. He did it in 2014, and here he is, doing it again, in 2017: On the 11th of April, Fattoush officially ended the spectacle where Lebanese politicians give the impression that they are seeking an electoral law (while all they’re doing is waste time until elections are no longer possible and a parliamentary extensions becomes the only reality), and proposed a TECHNICAL parliamentary extension draft law – wait for it – FOR 1 YEAR. Why a parliamentary extension this time? Because, according to Fattoush, the parliamentary extension is being considered to “protect the people.” And that’s exactly what Fattoush is: The protector of the people through parliamentary extensions and the human/salad embodiment of the Lebanese democratic model.

A PARLIAMENT THAT HAD 4 YEARS TO FIND AN ELECTORAL LAW, AND THAT EXTENDED ITS TERM FOR ANOTHER 4 YEARS TO FIND AN ELECTORAL LAW, WAS GOING TO GIVE ITSELF – IN FULL HYPOCRISY – ANOTHER YEAR TO FIND A NEW ELECTORAL LAW, AS IF IT WAS TOO MAINSTREAM TO CALL FOR ELECTIONS BASED ON THE CURRENT ELECTORAL LAW,  VOTE A NEW ELECTORAL LAW AS SOON AS THE NEW LEGITIMATE PARLIAMENT IS ELECTED, DISSOLVE THE PARLIAMENT ANDTHEN CALL FOR PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS, LIKE ALL DEMOCRATIC NORMAL COUNTRIES DO.

Article 59

Things escalated quickly: The politicians that were pro-extension started spreading FALSE INFORMATION THAT THE EXTENSION WAS TO AVOID A VACANCY IN THE PARLIAMENT: But – plot twist – There is NO SUCH THING AS A VACANCY IN THE PARLIAMENT. If the parliament becomes vacant – for whatever reason that is – or if it is dissolved, the Constitution stipulates that – wait for it – PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS SHOULD BE ORGANIZED AS SOON AS POSSIBLE. And another plot twist: That scenario used to happen before the war when the President dissolved the Parliament (example – in 1960).

Lebanese politicians – who had spent more than 30 months gaming (the literal meaning of gaming here) with a Presidential vacancy – were making everyone panic over a possibly vacant parliament, making everyone fear the void, or “Al Faragh” as they call it in a scary arabic tone, something that CONSTITUTIONALLY DOES NOT EXIST.

Things escalated quickly: The Christian parties refused the extension and the Muslim ones were more favorable, and as a sudden split was appearing in Lebanese politics, the President, under pressure from his own party, decided that he was going to use article 59 of the Constitution, postponing all Parliamentary session for one month – Until the 15th of May 2017. It was a wise move, making the President look like a savior, showing the FPM as the party that made an actual effort to stop the extension (in case it would happen afterwards in May or June), while also giving the impression that the President is a “strong President” that used his authority to close the parliament.

The President had however, in the process, also banned the Parliament from meeting to vote an electoral law till the 15th of May – 6 days before the theoretical planned election day. And as it turns out, the form in which the President banned the Parliament from meeting was actually unconstitutional.

One more month to procrastinate

In other words, the Lebanese parliament was given one month by the President to figure out an electoral law for it to vote while passing the extension. And that’s what we were promised by the wise speaker of the Parliament: “A fruitful electoral deadline”

There were a lot of fruits that month (including an apple Gebran Bassil tweeted about on the 27th of April), but none of them were related to elections or electoral laws: Like the past 8 years, each political party stuck to its proposal, while several compromise formulas were rejected by one party or another.

The political alliance was no longer as clear as 10 years ago when a single person could have negotiated in the name of March 8 and another in the name of March 14, and that complicated things a lot.

The FPM kept lobbying for their proposed electoral law while MPs from most blocs were voicing disapproval at it. The electoral law proposed by Mikati in 2012 was returning to the forefront, and Jumblatt launched an initiative to break the vote law impasse, proposing the PSP version of a hybrid vote law. But with 28291037378 electoral draft laws on the table proposed by 2410372829 parties to satisfy 38290238382902 politicians,  still no progress was being made, especially with Nasrallah of Hezbollah asking for the electoral law to be a consensual one (something that made Jumblatt happy for very obvious reasons).

Priorities

On the 28th of April 2017, the FPM, Hezbollah, the FM, the LF and PSP held a unprecedented meeting in the history of the electoral deliberations, so it was speculated that an agreement would be reached soon. That didn’t happen.

Instead, politicians decided that it was time to maximize the debate: On the 30th of April, Berri proposed the creation of a 64-Member Senate. You know what they say, “when there is no agreement on a parliamentary election law for elections that should be held in 21 days, change the subject and propose the creation of a Senate. Very helpful”.

One day later, Prime Minsiter Saad Hariri was launching Beirut’s new bike-sharing system.  You know what they say, “when there is no agreement on a parliamentary election law for elections that should be held in 20 days, launch a new bike system as it is an important priority.”

Then, on the 4th of May 2017, PM Hariri and President Aoun signed a decree that allows the diaspora of Lebanese origin to reclaim citizenship from wherever they are. You know what they say, “when there is no agreement on a parliamentary election law for elections that should be held in 17 days, sign a decree about Lebanese citizenship. It is a very important priority.”

Then on the 8th of May 2017, Lebanese politicians decided that they were going to focus on the electricity file. You know what they say, “when there is no agreement on a parliamentary election law for elections that should be held in 13 days, talk about the electricity. It is a very urgent priority.”

Then, on the 10th of May 2017, 11 DAYS BEFORE PLANNED THEORETICAL ELECTIONS, the Lebanese cabinet finally met, discussing more than 100 items on the agenda – while managing to avoid any talk about the electoral law. You know what they say, “when there is no agreement on a parliamentary election law for elections that should be held in 11 days, do not discuss elections but instead focus on unlicensed quarries and 100 other items. It is the most urgent of all priorities”

Then, on the 12th of may 2017, 9 DAYS BEFORE PLANNED THEORETICAL ELECTIONS, Hariri decided that it was 2009 again, and criticized Nasrallah’s speech. You know what they say, “when there is no agreement on a parliamentary election law for elections that should be held in 9 days, discuss your rival’s speech. It is a nuclear priority.”

By the 15th of May, the “grace period” given by the President was now over, and Berri, in an attempt to maximize the chance of reaching an electoral law, gave two more weeks for Lebanese politicians to procrastinate about a consensual electoral law, re-scheduling for the 29th of May the parliamentary session that was planned on the 15th of May.

The republic of procrastination

In Lebanese politics, a lot of things can happen in six months. And a lot of things did happen in those last six months. But not one single one of those things was a priority. The only job of the Parliament was to vote a new, fair electoral law as quickly as possible, and the only job of the Cabinet was to accelerate that process and assure timely elections. Instead, Lebanon’s Zuamas did the (expected) unthinkable: They decided, with the legitimacy of a Parliament elected in the previous decade and that theoretically leaves in a month, long-term economic plans for the country while putting the Lebanese on track for a third parliamentary extension.

Do we really ask so much of our politicians?

This was the 29th post in a series of bimonthly / monthly posts covering developments in Lebanese politics. This post is about the month of April and the first two weeks of May 2017.

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