Elections, Free Patriotic Movement, Hezbollah, Lebanon, March 14

Vetoing the Veto

veto4What 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.

cabinetclauseFor 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).
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18 thoughts on “Vetoing the Veto

  1. I’m curious why everyone has jumped up crying foul when Hariri said that he would no take part in a government if he lost, but would take an opposition position.

    Isn’t that exactly what FPM said and did in 2005?

    Posted by Jad Aoun | March 20, 2009, 3:00 pm
  2. QN,

    Great article as usual. Under normal circumstances, and if Lebanon was just another regular country, I would say that a guaranteed veto to the opposition is not a good idea for the various reasons you stated.

    However, given the fragile political climate both in Lebanon and the region, a unity government is sort of an insurance policy to avoid having the political disputes spill into the streets. The last thing the country needs. So singing the Kumbaya at this juncture is ok. The current system is flawed anyways with or without the veto.

    Long-term though, Lebanon would be better served to transition to a non-sectarian democratic system. A constitution based on human rights and strong protection of minorities. Maybe a new ministry should be formed to lay the gound work for such a project over say a ten year period. One would think that the new generation would applaud such a transition.

    Posted by Ras Beirut | March 20, 2009, 4:36 pm
  3. Normally I’d agree with you on all the above. But the last few years have been rough, people from both sides have become more entrenched and reactionary. The ‘event’ that ignites another round of mud slinging, demonstrations and innocent victims can come from a multitude of places.

    Yes, the elections are just a popularity vote and would not mean much in a consenual govt.(but they are a useful pointer to where the electorate stands and whose “argument” on Lebanon’s direction is the more popular) but I think for the next few years at least that what the country needs in order to heal wounds and lessen divide.

    Yes, that means no substantial reforms but to be honest, the mood the country is currently in, any substantial reform would be controversial and therefore avoided by any government.

    Posted by mo | March 20, 2009, 4:38 pm
  4. QN,
    Contrary to what it may look like, Ras Beirut and I did not compare notes!

    Posted by mo | March 20, 2009, 4:50 pm
  5. I am skeptical about Hariri not joining the coalition since he has too much economic interests to protect. However, if he is serious, this could be a very interesting approach and will force Lebanon (in the case of a March 8 victory) to determine its attitudes towards the West and towards Saudi. In order to succeed the March 8 government has to be pro-West and pro-Saudi. Otherwise, Lebanon’s economic situation will be dire. Let’s see what happens.

    Posted by AIG | March 20, 2009, 4:56 pm
  6. mo,

    After reading your post, I thought the same thing.

    Lebanon has gone thru a lot over the last 30 years and deserves a break.

    Posted by Ras Beirut | March 20, 2009, 5:18 pm
  7. I don’t think any sane politician would discuss his options for an electoral loss right before said election. If Hariri was to talk about joining a unity cabinet now, his own constituents would interpret it as a lack of self-confidence. Not the stuff to energize your base.

    He may very well mean what he’s saying. But whether or not he plans on joining a unity cabinet after an electoral defeat, he definitely would not discuss it before the elections.

    The whole unity cabinet thing is a symptom of our failed institutions. I’m not too happy about it, but until we have a judicial system that can challenge executive power, our only facility to curb a ‘tyranny of the majority’ is direct representation in the executive.

    Now whether a unity cabinet helps or hinders the development of an independent judiciary would be an interesting debate.

    Posted by RedLeb | March 20, 2009, 5:36 pm
  8. RedLeb

    What do you mean? The point is that Hariri IS discussing what he would do in the event of a loss. He said he’d stay home.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | March 20, 2009, 5:44 pm
  9. QN,
    Sorry, I wasn’t being clear.

    I meant that you wouldn’t discuss consolation prizes, or negotiate for a seat on the table in case of a loss. Nasrallah offered a gift that would be given if the opposition won. For Hariri to accept it he would be signaling that he accepts that his loss is likely.

    Saying that you’ll stay home is just saying the obvious: in an electoral loss you would be defeated. He has to paint a stark picture between victory and loss to ensure his base is mobilized and feel that their vote matters.

    Posted by RedLeb | March 20, 2009, 6:05 pm
  10. RedLeb,

    Ok, but just to push the envelope a little bit, doesn’t that mean that the opposition is making itself look weak by signalling that it would like a similar guarantee from March 14?

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | March 20, 2009, 6:25 pm
  11. Pretty savvy:


    Bush probably had no idea what Nowruz was.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | March 20, 2009, 6:27 pm
  12. RedLeb may have a point. Hariri may be trying to invigorate his base to get out and vote with a all-or-nothing manifesto.

    Posted by mo | March 20, 2009, 6:27 pm
  13. QN,
    Up to a point. However, Nasrallah has managed to project it as an offer from the opposition should they win. Even your own post framed the issue in terms of Hariri refusing to join a unity cabinet as a blocking minority, rather than a refusal of unity cabinets in general.

    But I do think it has had a negative effect on the opposition’s electoral block. I don’t believe the opposition wants to lose the election (as you’ve blogged), but maybe stances like these is what brings about such rumors.

    Posted by RedLeb | March 20, 2009, 6:47 pm
  14. RedLeb, I have no doubt that Michel Aoun wants to win the elections, and win BIG. I met him in the fall of last year, and he was extremely confident (and cocky, as is his wont).

    But I think that Hizbullah is a bit more subdued.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | March 20, 2009, 7:00 pm
  15. QN,

    At the end of the day , Hariri will do what the KSA wants him to do and that depends on the relation between KSA and Syria.

    Posted by norman | March 22, 2009, 3:29 pm
  16. great post QN as usual.
    I don’t think the elections are going to change anything. the problem with lebanese politics is that nothing is done in the open. Everything is cooked behind closed doors. The political class will ensure that all the team is in the parliament (look what’s happening between Jumblat and Berri). Hezbolah has also joined the club. I scratch your back, you scratch mine. I don’t think much will change with this elections. I agree with Norman..all Lebanese politicians follow the rhythm of their masters abroad. We are a nation of mercenaries.
    Same old same old, we need a major transformation of our political system through an electoral reform or else we are going to puke the same politicians. Harriri in or out…what’s gonna change? I hate concensus!

    Posted by nizar | March 23, 2009, 2:14 pm


  1. Pingback: Kerfuffle… Looming! « Qifa Nabki - June 8, 2009

  2. Pingback: Hariri Walks Away « Qifa Nabki - September 10, 2009

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