What can be read into Saad al-Hariri’s decision to not join a national unity government in the event that Hizbullah and its allies come to power in the June elections? Speaking to AFP on Tuesday, Hariri reiterated his earlier stance on the matter, saying: “It is my democratic right not to take part in such a government and to be in the opposition,” this despite the fact that Hizbullah has made it clear that they would give the minority a blocking veto (which translates into one third of the cabinet’s ministers plus one).
Is Hariri just being difficult, playing hard to get, or is there some other reason to stay out of a Hizbullah/Aounist government? Nasrallah seems to have his heart in the right place when he argues that “the era of domination” by one, or two, or even three sects, is over, and that Lebanon must be ruled by consensus. A guaranteed cabinet veto for the future opposition would help insulate the country from the big-ticket parliamentary conflicts that have the potential (with the right kind of political incitement, of course) to spill out into the streets. A veto would effectively cordon off these issues rendering them untouchable, thereby arming both coalitions with an enormous broom to sweep any unsightly legislation under the rug of consociational compromise.
On the other hand, a guaranteed veto for the opposition has the potential to put all substantive reform into a deep freeze, and this within the context of an already glacially-slow political process. With the exception of Ziad Baroud (who is unlikely to return as Interior Minister), the executive branch is already bogged down by a million petty crises, turf wars, and internal squabbles. Ministers don’t need to be given yet another tool with which to obstruct legislation. Furthermore, a preordained veto would neuter the governing mandate of the majority, even before it is elected, just as it would send a signal to the voters that the outcome of the election is not really important since we are headed for an executive stalemate, no matter what. The veto is, above all, a weapon designed to protect the interests of the political class, and not the citizenry.
For all of these reasons (and I may come to rue the day that I said this), I’m increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of a national unity government after the June elections. While it may be true that coalition governments are the norm in consociational democracies, the fact is that Lebanon’s political system does not possess any of the other major features that a consociational model should contain, like proportional representation, decentralized government, and assymetric bicameralism. In this context, therefore, a national unity government represents the worst of both worlds: a hamstrung cabinet presiding over a parliament in which only the most sectarian parties can prevail.
What’s more, there is a kind of circular logic at work in the argument for national unity: Lebanon is apparently too fragile and sectarian-minded to be ruled by majoritarian democracy, hence the need for consensual power-sharing schemes (which only serve to entrench the big sectarian parties). When Nasrallah calls for a national unity government in which all communities are represented and enfranchised, it sounds like he is being respectful of his co-nationalists, but to my mind he is also purposefully conflating religion and politics. Calling for a national unity government even before people have voted and promising a blocking veto even before we know the results of the elections is a strategy that can only help to maintain and institutionalize Lebanon’s corrupt system of horsetrading at the highest levels of government. It is, in fact, to say that the large political parties are identical with the confessional communities, and so excluding a party means that you are excluding the sect, which violates the constitution.
Of course, all of this theoretical mumbo-jumbo is very far from the calculations of both Nasrallah and Hariri, who are likely concerned with more mundane matters like building up some political cover from the West (in the former’s case), and jacking up the price of that cover (in the latter’s).