Lebanese Parliament

Introducing the Robert Fadel Maneuver

Robert Fadel (Image source The Daily Star Mohamad Azakir)

Robert Fadel (Image source: The Daily Star/ Mohamad Azakir)

Wait, what? An MP resigned?

Yesterday, Tripoli’s Greek Orthodox MP, Robert Fadel, dropped a political bomb and announced that he was resigning from parliament, because the new Tripoli municipal council had no Christian representatives: “More than one essential component was absent or marginalized from the new municipal council,” Fadel said in an email statement.

True, 126 MPs should resign their seats as well since they weren’t elected and their presence in parliament is unconstitutional according to the constitutional council itself, but it should be noted that MP Fadel’s resignation is by far the perfect example of a Lebanese politician’s maneuver.

The context

With draft electoral laws being discussed in joint commissions once again – including talks of major changes, such as switching 60 or even 64 seats to proportional representation , bigger electoral districts might replace caza ones, and the Greek Orthodox seat might find his way to a larger PR district as a way to give the FPM-LF alliance a political win they can call huge while it’s actually not that relevant to the nationwide politics (although changing the law is extremely likely after the municipal elections almost overthrew every major politician in his “fiefdom” making proportional representation a risky prospect for everyone).

So in other words, there might not be a Greek Orthodox parliamentary seat in Tripoli in 2017 (It would be transferred to a greater North constituency with PR representation), and Fadel can no longer count on an alliance with the city’s politicians – No matter who they are (Mikati, Safadi, Karami, Hariri or Rifi). He’ll either have to run in a district that includes Zgharta, where he might face Frangieh, the strongest presidential candidate right now (or Frangieh Jr, the son of the next president in case that candidate makes it to Baabda) – good luck with that, or he’ll have to run in a district that includes Batroun. There, he’ll have to face Boutros Harb (or a successor), Gebran Bassil – the president of the FPM, and Antoine Zahra of the LF. Depending on the redistricting, he might run for a seat in the entire North governorate. And that means going against all of the above politicians.

Fadel had to face the fact that he was going to run against a presidential candidate or the son of a presidential candidate, or the son-in-law of a presidential candidate and the president of the biggest Christian party who also happens to be supported by the second strongest Christian party and a potentially very powerful independent candidate and local politician. To make things even worse, two of those politicians (Harb, Bassil) are currently in the cabinet.

So what did he do? He resigned, because there were no Christian members of the municipality in the city – in order to try and “win the hearts” of the Christian electorate of Batroun, Zgharta, and Koura, a year before general elections, while also making sure that it was almost impossible for anyone else to take his seat from now till June 2017. But the maneuver isn’t that simple.

The timing

Theoretically, and according to article 41 of the Constitution, “Should a seat in the Chamber become vacant, the election of a successor shall begin within two months. The mandate of the new member shall not exceed that of the old member whose place he is taking; however, should the seat in the Chamber become vacant during the last six months of its mandate, no successor may be elected.”
That means we should have elections by August – similar to the Jezzine by-elections earlier this month, but Fadel resigned one day after parliamentary elections could have been held to replace him, and we live in Lebanon, so if the interior ministry was going to organize parliamentary by-elections in Tripoli, it was going to be last week, when the city had its municipal ones. If the Jezzine by-elections took two years to happen (after the death of MP Helou in 2014) Tripoli by-elections are unlikely to happen before May 2017, and no one of the mainstream establishment parties is going to risk losing a Tripoli seat a day after Rifi won the city. It’s a risky prospect, and gives the opportunity to Rifi, Tripoli’s rising politician, to get a Christian politician by his side. That’s literally the worst thing that could ever happen to any of the parties in power, since it would mean that Rifi can slowly expand his influence in the other Sunni regions – The Sunni leaders of the establishment, when “big enough”, have always been known of allying themselves with minor Christian figures in their regions – while also threatening the Christian parties’ dominance in the North.

So yeah, I’ll repeat what I said earlier: No one of the mainstream establishment parties is going to risk losing a Tripoli seat a day after Rifi won the city. Fadel’s seat will remain vacant till 2017, so no one could actually fill the vacancy, and if the Tripoli seat remains in the city, Fadel will run with his Sunni allies just like the good old days of 2009 (In the end – and in a way – he resigned because they lost the municipal elections). If it’s going outside the city, where the Christian electorate is expected to have a higher percentage (Christians are around 40% of the Northeners), he has the best sectarian card ever to face the FPM, the LF, Harb (and if Koura is included, other independents like Makari) : He can say he’s the only MP who resigned for “a Christian cause”.

Mikati tried to do the same maneuver in the Sunni camp when he resigned back in 2013, right before parliamentary elections, when Rifi was being isolated (If you guys remember), so it’s actually an old-school maneuver many Lebanese politicians like to use in times of trouble.

ALSO, if you notice, Fadel resigned exactly 3 years after the first parliamentary extension. Now that is what you call a smooth maneuver.

La morale: Campaigning for the parliamentary elections has just begun. Brace yourselves. It’s going to be an exciting year of political maneuvers.

738 days since the 25th of May (presidential vacancy). 1097 days since the 31st of May (parliamentary extension) .

Legislation of Necessity and a Christian Boycott

How the parliament looked like before the war. Found on the internet.

How the parliament looked like before the war. Found on the internet.

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.

Lebanon, meet article 75 of the Lebanese Constitution. Article 75 of the Lebanese constitution, meet Lebanon. For this week, the parliament of Lebanon is answering the call of its speaker and is meeting – in the middle of a presidential vacancy – in order to legislate.

It is not the first time something like that happens. On the 5th of November 2014, the Lebanese parliament legislated and extended its own term. As if meeting to legislate wasn’t by itself contradictory to article 75 of the constitution (You really don’t have to be an expert to see that), the constitutional council considered that the extension law was unconstitutional. In other words, it’s like telling a little kid that he can’t eat pizza and that he can’t eat in his room, and the little kid proceeds to eat a pizza, in his room. And since the kid wasn’t grounded, he plans on eating the whole kitchen this week (38 draft laws are listed on the agenda of the Thursday and Friday sessions).

What is a priority?

For the past year, the Lebanese political system became a vicious circle. Most of the parties in power (except the FPM) are asking for the election of a president before early parliamentary elections. The FPM (as well as the protesters) have asked for early parliamentary elections before the presidential elections. For the FPM, it’s because they don’t have the majority necessary to elect Aoun, and for the Hirak (the Lebanese protests movement), it’s because the Lebanese parliament is a de facto unconstitutional non-elected one that doesn’t have the legitimacy to elect a president who will rule for 6 years. Now, once this debate is solved, and that all of Lebanon’s people and politicians agree on the identity of the priority (good luck), another problem arises: All of Lebanon’s politicians say that the current electoral law is bad, yet cannot agree on an alternative one. To make things even worse, internal struggles between different parties in the government have left Lebanon drowning in a garbage crisis since July. Even after four months of protests and outrage, there is still no solution in sight as the bickering in the cabinet continues.

To sum things up, Lebanon’s current political crisis is caused by the disagreement of the politicians on the timing of the parliamentary elections, the timing of the presidential elections, the electoral law, the name of the president, and on the way things work within the cabinet. That was until last week. This week, things become a bit more complicated: There’s a disagreement on a parliamentary session too. Is it a priority? What does the word “priority” mean in Lebanon anyway?

Muslim vs Christian

For the first time since the ice age, the biggest three Christian parties in the Lebanese parliament are sticking together. The Lebanese Forces, the Kataeb and the Free Patriotic Movement say that what Berri calls “legislation of necessity” isn’t the priority. The Christian parties consider the election of the president to be the first and foremost priority, and if the parliament should convene, it’s in order to elect a president (Ironically, the FPM are the ones denying quorum in the presidential elections). It’s for obvious reasons: The Christian parties want to keep the presidential elections alive, especially that the main candidates are current/former leaders of the FPM, LF and Kataeb. They consider that legislating in the absence of the president is considered to be unconstitutional, although all of those parties accepted ( = They still consider their MPs to be MPs) the results of a previous legislation in the absence of the president (the extension law of November 5, 2014)  even if they boycotted the session. The FPM and the LF have said that they would participate in case the electoral law would be on the agenda. This more friendly approach than the Kataeb’s absolute boycott stance is probably due to the fact that the presidential front-runners of M8 and M14 are still Aoun and Geagea.

But forget about being friendly right now. Once the main three Christian parties in parliament – they account to approximately the two thirds of the Christian seats –  boycott the session, a much bigger problem will arise: The Lebanese Muslim parties – planning on participating in the legislative sessions – will be (more or less) legislating in the absence of “Christian legitimacy”, which would permit the Christian parties to use March 8’s weapon of 2006: A vague constitutional principle from the preamble stipulating that There shall be no constitutional legitimacy for any authority which contradicts the ‘pact of mutual existence. Hezbollah used it to combat the Siniora government (whose Shia ministers all resigned) almost a decade ago, and almost anyone who claims to represent a sect can use it to veto anything. Another thing that the Christians parties and their electorate fear the most about legislating in the absence of a president is the idea of passing laws without having the highest Christian civil servant in power. True, the president doesn’t have a lot of say in the post-Taef era, but he can still challenge laws via the constitutional council or maneuver via his cabinet share (or via other ways). For the Christians parties (and electorate), passing laws without the signature of the Christian president is very scary.

In other words, all the Christian parties – in a historic moment – are joining up together to play the Christian sectarian card against their Muslim allies. That is a huge precedent in the modern history of Lebanon. And what is even more dangerous is that their Muslim allies seem not to care about this move, which might eventually lead in the future to a Christian-Muslim clash transcending the M8-M14 rivalry. You know, because Lebanon needs even more problems.

Revenge is a dish best served cold

Among the 38 draft laws on the table this week is a proposal that is supposed to lure the Christian parties and push them to take part in the legislative sessions: A draft law that would grant citizenship to the descendants of Lebanese expatriates. For ages, that was one of the main requests of the Christian parties (they believe that most of the expatriates are Christians which would strengthen their position ahead of parliamentary elections). So why aren’t the Christian parties participating?

For the LF and the Kataeb, boycotting the legislative session means that they’re pissing off the leadership of the March 8 alliance and that they too – and not only the FPM – are ready to stand up for Christian rights (= the priority of electing a Christian president before legislating in this case).

For the FPM, their boycott of the session is probably a mini-retaliation on Berri for letting the extension of Kahwagi in the army command pass and for not standing with them on the Chamel Roukoz issue. Revenge is a dish best served cold.

So as Lebanon’s Christian parties boycott a legislative session and as the Muslim parties say that the boycott doesn’t make the session any less legitimate, here’s a little lovely reminder: We still don’t have a president (and if we had one, we wouldn’t be discussing the pros and cons of legislating in the absence of a president).

535 days sincwe the 25th of May. 371 days since the 5th of November. 81 days since the 22nd of August.

Constitutionality In The Eye Of The Beholder

Nabih Berri

Guess Whose Eyes Are These

The political system is established on the principle of separation of powers, their balance and cooperation.

Three weeks ago, Lebanon’s highest judicial court, the constitutional council, stood there silently, watching an illegitimate and unjustified extension of the parliament’s term. There’s nothing worse than having a paralyzed constitutional council in a country. What was supposed to be incorruptible, unreachable by politicians, the last hope to halt  tyrannical laws – a council dissolving illegitimate senates in Egypt and capable of impeaching presidents – turned out to be a political property as it even failed to convene; two judges were loyal to Berri and another was loyal to Jumblatt. To be fair, the council’s president that was against the extension, also turned out to be a relative of the Lebanese President. Meaning that any decision – with or against the extension – would’ve been a political one rather than a purely independent judicial one. In Lebanon you can call it sharing power,  expanding an influence or even rewarding a loyal supporter with a civil servant post. In other countries, it’s called corruption.

No True Separation

The quote at the beginning isn’t from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but from the Lebanese Constitution, its preamble, article E . So what defines a democracy? Separation of powers does play a role, at least according to Montesquieu. It prevents a single body from usurping all the powers, or even corrupting and paralyzing the two other bodies.

When half of the constitutional council members are named by the parliament and the other half is the government’s share, is it truly an independent judicial power? When the parliament – that already has immense powers of electing the President, the PM, giving the government the confidence, and indirectly ruling everywhere – fails to form a government and starts surpassing its legislative authority by voting laws with no government in power, by extending civil servant terms – a purely executive right – and by having the third of the previous cabinet as MPs, wouldn’t be considered usurpation of power rather than separation and cooperation? Would an MP give a no-confidence vote if he were the minister? Is it anything but merging the three branches of the state? If there was still one thing to be proud of in this country, it was the separation of powers between the government, the judiciary, and the parliament. Even that turned to be an illusion.

Berri’s Double Standards

Constitutionality is in the eye of the beholder. Back in 2007, when the speaker refused to call for a parliamentary session (thus paralyzing the parliament), he argued that the government was not legitimate because it did not have Shia ministers. For him, the government was not considered as a functioning executive power anymore, and the parliament – selon l’usage – cannot usually convene to vote laws with no executive authority in power, because forming a government has the priority over voting laws so that the country avoids power vacuum. I have always criticized politicians for their double standards (see here). Today is Berri’s turn: If there is one undeniable and irrefutable political  fact today, it is that the Mikati government is a caretaker one, with no authority, and even less legitimate than the Siniora government that was present in 2007, for even if Siniora’s legitimacy was questioned, he did not resign and stayed in his post till 2008.

Just one simple innocent Moulahaza: The speaker paralyzes the parliament for 18 months because 7 ministers resign, but when the government officially falls, he is so eager to call for a session in three consecutive days, with 74339240032 draft laws on the agenda – without forgetting that a postponement of the elections and an extension of the mandate was also made under no government in power –  while constitutionally, the speaker is not allowed to call for a session from the end of May till the 15th of October unless the president issues a decree (article 23) .

Berri’s Point Of View

Berri considers that he has the right to call for a session because constitutionally when a government falls the parliament automatically convenes in an extraordinary session. Even if it’s not written in the constitution, the extraordinary session isn’t for legislation but for forming a government as soon as possible. However for Berri, it was understood as a green light to call for a legislating session. If he says so, why wasn’t it also understood as a green light in 2007? Apparently constitutionality is not only in the eye of the beholder, it also changes with time.

What’s Greater Than A Democracy?

There’s a video on YouTube “في احلى من لبنان” (What’s greater than Lebanon?) made by the ministry of tourism encouraging tourists to visit Lebanon. To sum it up quickly, they forget to tell you a lot of things : That the sea is probably the most polluted one in the Middle East (0:06), that the mountains are being crushed (0:20), that the sun exists everywhere in the world (0:26), that we have a  poor food quality (0:36) and that you’ll probably have gastroenteritis in a week. They don’t tell you that Baalbak, by far the most important landmark in Lebanon wasn’t mentioned because it was being shelled by the FSA, that the biggest three coastal cities are now militia hubs, and that a couple of years ago there used to be a poster of Condoleeza Rice at the airport road with the following saying beneath it:  “لا تشتري العبد الا والعصا معه”  (Feel free to to go on Google Translate). But my primary concern with the video isn’t that the Lebanese feel that sharing a video is more useful than protecting the museum  treasures,  stopping the destruction of hippodromes and old houses, watching over our coasts or even asking for a better touristic police. The world is not fool. Sharing videos from the thirties’ era won’t bring tourists to Lebanon, but working to improve and stabilize the country will. Stopping the weekly skirmishes, bringing a government to life, not destroying Amin Maalouf’s house – among hundreds of other cultural buildings taken down every day – might bring more tourists than sharing a one minute YouTube video telling us that we have sun, water, women (0:45) and food (like all the places in the world apparently)

And what is my primary problem? And how is the video related to the subject of the post? At 0:50 comes the biggest lie you might ever hear. A lie so big that even the Lebanese chooses to believe it. “What’s Greater Than A Democracy?“.

Put aside the ruling generals. Put aside the warlords that became humble civil servants. How can a country with no freedom of press, with no separation of powers, with no elections and with no government can be considered a democracy? The biggest tyranny is the illusion of democracy. When a Lebanese politician – an MP and apparently a candidate to the presidency, which by the way is supposed to be the protective post of the constitution – goes on TV and says that “What strengthens you is your strength on the ground, here in Lebanon, not what is written down in [the Constitution]”, tell me, dear reader, do you feel you’re in a democratic republic where five sheet of paper protect you and give you your basic rights wherever you go, or in an animal farm where you’ll be the prey of both the lion and the wolf?

Guess What!

Egypt is a democracy – well not really, the army just made a coup, but you get the point – and you know why? Because one year after elections, 30 millions take the streets, overthrow a democratically elected president  belonging to a religious party because of his mistakes, put the president of the constitutional council as interim president and organize early elections, only 2 years after they had removed another dictator hailing from the army.

The difference? You live in a country where you have been ruled by generals hailing from the army and religious parties for the past five decades, where the parliament elected on the basis of a gerrymandered electoral law extends his term and then starts acting like a government, monopolizing the executive power and legislative power. A country where even a constitutional council can’t convene.

In a democracy, the rules of the game are clear. When they aren’t, and the referees can’t take a decision,  constitutionality becomes in the eye of beholder. And when the constitution – that includes the written democratic principles – becomes in the eye of the beholder, it is not the constitution anymore, but rather a constitution among others.

Several constitutions do not unite one people.

Extending the Lebanese Parliament’s Mandate

Lebanese Parliament (The Daily Star)

Lebanese Parliament (The Daily Star)

There has been a lot of talk recently on a draft law that would extend the parliament’s mandate six more months so that the lawmakers can reach an agreement on an electoral law. Some reports even suggested it might be two years instead of six months. And that means a lot.

Wages. Yes, we tend to forget that quite often, but a Member of the Parliament gets paid 7333$/Month (It actually gets higher with the new raise of 2012 and with the special allowances). That means that in six months, we are paying the lawmakers 7333×6×128 which is equivalent to 5.63 Million Dollars. So just in case the parliament’s mandate gets extended for the purpose of an electoral law, that law will cost 5.63 Million Dollars. And It’s not about paying wages to lawmakers. If we have elections, the 2013 MPs will get the wages instead of the 2009 ones anyway, and even the MPs that won’t be here in the 2013 parliament will still get at least 55% of their MP wage. What is frustrating is that people who were elected to work and get paid for 4 years, will now work and get paid for an extra time, while theoretically, they shouldn’t.

If They wanted a law they would have agreed on one. It doesn’t take that much (more…)