Elections, Lebanon

The Looming Kerfuffle

forestCalling all framers! We’ve got a constitution down at Sahet al-Nijmeh… Victim is on the ground, unresponsive… Urgent attention is needed. Over.

Two days from now, I hope to be sitting in traffic, on my way to cast a vote of protest against a powerful za’im who will win in a landslide. We’ve been doing the numbers on this blog for months now, so there’s not much point in releasing any last minute predictions. All of the pollsters seem to think that the opposition will win, but the margin has gotten narrower over the past few weeks. Michael Young points out in The Daily Star today that Michel Aoun’s performance in 2005 turned the forecasts into “mush”, so let’s just try to enjoy the suspense, shall we?

Here’s what I’d like to say, though, regarding the post-election process. While I hope that the various players follow the ICG report’s recommendations to “support the broad principles of power-sharing”, it is utterly inexcusable that this government finds itself stumbling heedlessly towards the Forest of Constitutional Ambiguities, where it will surely lose its way as it has repeatedly over the past four years.

I asked Karim Pakradouni recently if he thought that we would see demonstrations and sit-ins again if March 14 won and didn’t give the opposition a cabinet veto, or whether there would be a crisis of legitimacy for a cabinet in which the Future Movement did not participate. He responded in the same way that countless analysts have responded when asked this very question on TV and radio talk shows: “I don’t think so. I really don’t think that conditions are what they were in 2006-07, so I don’t think that it will go that far.”

To which my response was: “Why the hell not?”

Ok, I didn’t really say that, but I should have. My friends, it should be obvious to all of us that this game they call governance is being played with an unsatisfactory rulebook. In the absence of clear and established procedures, we have to resort to deal-making through public offers and quid pro quos. This is just not sustainable. Nowhere in the Lebanese Constitution does it say anything about cabinet veto powers. Nor, for that matter, does it explain what rules should govern the formation of any cabinet. As far as I can tell, the coalition that wins a majority in parliament could technically put together a cabinet consisting of seven fried won-tons, a shrimp springroll, and nine fortune cookies, without violating the Constitution.

When Syria ruled Lebanon with American and Saudi consent, procedural ambiguities didn’t matter; in fact, they were an asset. Today, they are a very serious liability. President Suleiman, in my opinion, should have put his foot down at some point during the past twelve months and said: “Ya shabab, we’re not going to have an election until we can all agree on what the rules are, after the election.” As is, we’re flying blind.

Happy voting, everyone. Be safe out there, don’t do anything idiotic, and check back in here on Sunday night.

** See also Paul Salem’s article in The Daily Star today, “Lebanon will need a coalition government“. Note that he doesn’t say whether this coalition government should give veto powers to the minority.
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Discussion

31 thoughts on “The Looming Kerfuffle

  1. Now that we have a legitimate president, shouldn’t he play a more active roll in case majority/opposition disagreements?
    Does he have the constitutional means to sway parliamentarians?

    Posted by razzouk | June 5, 2009, 12:57 pm
  2. Stop looking for quick fixes. What we have is a mafia that has been run as a money making enterprise for over 60 years. Various gangsters, crooks and assorted criminals have been on the “board” of this enterprise and passed their seats down to their kids and grand kids.

    The system, the laws, were all set up to keep these people on the board. The ambiguities were there so that they could change the rules when they wanted.

    When the system failed, there was loads of gang warfare until the some new people were given a seat on the board.

    And to further complicate matters, the mafia has the support of the some strong states and some 40% of the Lebanese public.

    And if you are looking for change that means the mafia loses power, you are in for a long hard struggle my friend.

    Enjoy your protest vote!

    Posted by mo | June 5, 2009, 3:36 pm
  3. QN, which landslide-winning zaim are you talking about, where are you voting again?

    and hell yes, there will be sit-ins and more violent forms of protest in the (unlikely?) case that the majority DOES win without granting the veto. unfortunately i’m pretty convinced about this. i don’t understand why everybody who has been asked about it just keeps appeasing. the argument will simply be ‘well, had we won, we WOULD be granting it’, and that although the doha agreement may formally be expiring, the state of lebanese society is the same and continues to require power-sharing.

    are the polls really predicting a narrowing gap? i thought i had heard it’s widening, in m8’s favor. one thing i’m pretty sure about, although this is merely based on cabbie conversations or talking to friends, is that participation will be very high. i’ve heard so many people say they’ll be voting for the first time in ages.

    other than that, i think chinese food in beirut is pretty much the only really disappointing fare catered here, so maybe that could be considered a violation of the constitution. you could totally get away with sushi/sashimi/maki and the likes, though.

    Posted by bint abeeha | June 5, 2009, 4:08 pm
  4. bint abeeha

    It’s a secret. But I’ll give you a hint. His last name rhymes with the Arabic adjective meaning “secret”.

    I have yet to speak to a single opposition partisan who can explain this whole issue with any clarity.

    Let’s rewind the tape to 2006. The Shiite ministers walked out of the cabinet, thereby claiming it was illegitimate because there was no Shiite representation. (This, I think, was also constitutionally ambiguous… the requirement for all sects to be represented comes from the Ta’if accord, I believe.)

    But more to the point. Let’s say Saad Hariri stays out of the cabinet — not because he wants to bring down the government, as Hizb/Amal did, but just because he wants to be in the parliamentary opposition. What then? Doesn’t that violate the same principle that the Hizb/Amal walkout violated? And before you say that M8 could easily appoint other Sunnis, one could counter by saying that M14 could have appointed other Shiites but didn’t; Saniora preferred not to accept the resignation letters of the Shiite ministers because he knew they were the legit reps of the Shiite community.

    So then wouldn’t the Future Movement’s absence from the cabinet put a serious dent in its “legitimacy”, even if Hariri didn’t call for a sit-in?

    It’s all too loosey-goosey for my taste. Let’s nail this down ya jame3a.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | June 5, 2009, 4:36 pm
  5. glad not to be there for the elections is all i can say
    i can just imagine the frenzy
    i will be there for the subsequent chaos though, which is really where the shit is, innit?

    Posted by Joujolie | June 5, 2009, 6:12 pm
  6. Very well put, as usual, and fabulous turn of phrase; indeed, the “Forest of Constitutional Ambiguities” has seen better days.

    Good luck to your “secret” candidate, and looking forward to your post-election comments.

    Posted by Rime | June 5, 2009, 8:16 pm
  7. Shukran Sittna… let’s hope for the best.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | June 5, 2009, 10:33 pm
  8. “As far as I can tell, the coalition that wins a majority in parliament could technically put together a cabinet consisting of seven fried won-tons, a shrimp springroll, and nine fortune cookies, without violating the Constitution.”

    Cabinet laziz, ya3ni. Sa7tayn!

    Seriously though, strong stuff, QN, throughout the campaign season. I’m reading with great interest.

    Posted by minDC | June 6, 2009, 4:00 am
  9. I hate to sound cynical but…I will. While your post is as eloquent as any other has ever been. It’s tackling the disambiguity of Lebanese Politics and constitutional violations without considering the mother of all elephants in the room, foreign interference. Which I am afraid we all know will continue to be the single most important factor in Lebanese politics for years to come. Most Lebanese leaders and backers will simply say “bala constitution bala bateekh” because to them the end (holding on to power) justifies every mean and all that legal jargon is just elitist intellectual mumbo jumbo, or worse a conspiracy 😉

    I’m with Mo on this one. Lebanon might be benefited to being the only “Arab”ish country with some sort of democratic system. But instead of enjoying just one dictator, they’ve been cursed with many mini-dictators whose main responsibility is to push other nations’ best interest in the country. But since there seems to be an international consensus to calm things down in Lebanon I believe Karim Pakradouni is probably right, except for the unlikely scenario that M14 win by a large margin and refuse to give the opposition a blocking power.

    And on that sour note… I wish best of luck to all of you who’re voting.

    Posted by Innocent Criminal | June 6, 2009, 9:54 am
  10. sorry i meant “tackling ambiguity of lebanese politics” not disambiguity

    Posted by Innocent Criminal | June 6, 2009, 12:48 pm
  11. Feltman provides credence to what I have been saying all along:
    http://www.naharnet.com/domino/tn/NewsDesk.nsf/getstory?openform&1F9A4E3444BCB663C22575CD001F8A0B

    Posted by AIG | June 6, 2009, 7:27 pm
  12. Feltman’s quote is a little weird. Is he proposing that Christians in Lebanon SHOULD depend on the United States, or that Obama insisted they should in his speech? What is it exactly that Aoun wants that America doesn’t?

    Posted by Abraham Rotsapsky | June 6, 2009, 8:07 pm
  13. Feltman should have kept his mouth shut; the Americans have to understand at some point that these kinds of statements are counterproductive.

    If March 14 loses tomorrow, it will be because its leaders have listened to the advice of people like Feltman for far too long. They should have pursued an entirely different strategy, in my opinion, if they wanted to take Hizbullah down a notch.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | June 6, 2009, 9:41 pm
  14. Feltman’s tone deafness is truly shocking. This is what happens when you don’t actually talk to half the country. What an idiot!

    It is soooo dumb it almost makes me think misdirection … 🙂 Aoun as a USG agent. Now there’s a good yarn.

    Happy voting, or non-voting or whatever … d

    Posted by dadavidovich | June 6, 2009, 10:21 pm
  15. QN,

    What if Feltman is just telling the truth? There is no reason to believe he isn’t. Why are you angry at him for being honest with the Lebanese voters??? This way, the US reaction to a Hizballah victory will not be a surprise to anybody and this will allow the voters to take the US reaction into account.

    And why is the statement counterproductive? Do you claim to know what the crucial issues are for the Lebanese swing voter? I am sure that many Christians leaning towards Aoun are rethinking their position. Maybe they will decide to stay home instead of vote.

    By the way, Feltman was talking to all the country. Alas, 50% does not want to listen. The Obama administration is all about telling the truth even if it is uncomfortable. What Feltman did was according to this policy.

    Posted by AIG | June 7, 2009, 12:18 am
  16. What if Feltman is just telling the truth?

    AIG –

    Something else to consider: What if Feltman and the Obama administration have no clue how to get this Middle East peace treaty they keep talking about, and instead of pressuring the rejectionists like Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah, they pressure democracies like Israel?

    Meanwhile a state department mole of 30 years was busy giving classified information to Cuba.

    AIG –

    Rush Limbaugh is right when he says “If al-Qaeda wants to demolish the America we know and love, they better hurry, because Obama is beating them to it.”

    The silver lining is that thousands of Jews may opt to leave the socialist US for socialist Israel.

    Posted by Akbar Palace | June 7, 2009, 4:38 am
  17. Why do you want Feltman to shut up ?!! do you belive Iran cares more about the Lebanese Christian population than the USA ?

    Posted by V | June 7, 2009, 5:16 am
  18. It’s pretty clear why Feltman should have kept his trap shut: if anything, comments like those piss people off and hurt his Lebanese allies. He’s actually harming the electoral prospects of the allies he’s ostensibly trying to bolster.

    Akbar Palace: Well your understanding of American politics is even more insightful and nuanced than your take on Middle Eastern politics. Please let us know how we can subscribe to your newsletter, or find your AM radio show, as the case may be.

    Posted by sean | June 7, 2009, 8:23 am
  19. What are you guys talking about? since when is politics and manipulating the masses about telling the truth???

    QN is right, Feltman should have kept his big mouth shut if he wants M14 to win. comments like these almost make me think the US doesnt mind seeing M8 win.

    Posted by Innocent Criminal | June 7, 2009, 8:40 am
  20. I think this debate about Feltman’s late burst is quite indicative. It coincides with the period prescribed by ‘law’ when all candidates take a break. it also came just before the head of the Maronite Church’s contribution last night, for all its worth.

    While I agree with sentiments expressed about the need for Feltman to keep quite, I would be concerned if I were a M14 supporter, especially since the current Parliamentary majority are nervous as it is without such ‘support’.

    Feltman telling it as it is, opined a contribution! Let us have a chat with Walid Jumblat; he has the inside track when it comes to ‘support’ that Feltman and the like provided over the past 4 years or so. He was so impressed that he couldn’t wait to change political, and more importantly strategic direction.

    QN-
    Notwithstanding the Ta’if accords or the ambiguous stipulation in the unwritten charter that ‘calls’ for power sharing among different sects in Lebanon (I believe the written constitution advocates universal suffrage with equality for all confessions), I believe it is a stretch to compare the walking out of several ministers from the 1st Saniora government (not all Shiite, I might add; remember Ya’qoub Sarraf!), with the choice of Hariri and co. to stay away from a government that will be formed by the current Parliamentary minority, if they were to win the elections.

    In the 1st instance the government was formed on the basis of a coalition and guided by a documented and binding declaration signed to by all those sharing power. In view of one side, this declaration was breached, hence the withdrawal and the subsequent unrest.

    This time round, the ‘new’ government will come as a result of an election. This factor alone, in my humble view, is the main difference.

    Yes, the new opposition, if it were to be Hariri and co. will have the right to oppose. Whether they will be allowed to conduct sit-ins and similar activities in the new light of the emerging political realities after the election is a matter of debate.

    That said, I think we all have learned that nothing is clear-cut and logical when it comes to matters Lebanese.

    Regards

    Posted by Question Marks | June 7, 2009, 9:45 am
  21. How is Feltman’s comment harming and if so do you think Patriarch Sfeir should have shut his holy flapper too? and were his comments equally harmful to M14?
    If the undecided Lebanese Christians needed a little push towards M14 a day before the election don’t you think they needed to hear Feltman and Sfeir sounding the alarm?

    Posted by V | June 7, 2009, 10:05 am
  22. V,

    It is either I didn’t make myself clear enough or you missed the point altogether. While I wasn’t equating the Cardinal’s position with that of Feltman, I do think that the latter’s ‘intervention’ is both harmful to M14 (indeed judging from history it is even disingenuous and self serving) and inappropriate.

    Cardinal Sfeir is Lebanese while Mr. Feltman is not -as far as I know, unless he was granted an honorary citizenship akin to the Cedar Crest awarded to yet another ‘Lebanese lover’ namely Mr. Bolton with his declared sympathy to Lebanese children during the 2006 war when unfavourably comparing them, in death no less, to their Israeli counterpart.

    My point about ‘coincidence’ and ‘indicative’ was the perceived need on the part of M14 supporters for a final, desperate some might say, push. It doesn’t seem to bode well for M14; but who knows, we are only analysing.

    Let us go back 48 hours and review the relatively ‘balanced’ communiqué issued by the Maronite Church that was almost a-political and called for unity and national harmony.

    Alas, the same can hardly be said about the Cardinal’s statement on the eve of the elections.

    Regards

    Posted by Question Marks | June 7, 2009, 10:23 am
  23. and to add to QM’s comment above. How would you’ve liked it if Ahmedinijad or Assad had called for M8 support and threatned the way Syria & Iran would deal with Lebanon if M14 win?

    Posted by Innocent Criminal | June 7, 2009, 11:01 am
  24. V,

    Push in which direction? Putting Lebanon’s Maronites on the same footing with Egypt’s Copts hardly goes down well with the former. One of the reasons Aoun is popular among Christians is that he tickles the Maronite ego and has waged battles, even with his allies, over Christian representation (eg. Jezzin). To waltz in a day before the elections with these statements does not only harm the electoral process, as Sean and QN point out, it is also moronic.

    Posted by Ms. Tee | June 7, 2009, 11:09 am
  25. y’all got me there i guess the USA and the west need to learn a thing or 2 about influencing elections in Lebanon a la Syria/Iran style!!

    Posted by V | June 7, 2009, 11:41 am
  26. Question Marks

    When Hizbullah/Amal declared the cabinet illegitimate, they didn’t do so on the basis of some violation of a political agreement. They declared it illegitimate because of its loss of credible Shiite representation. This was the crux of the issue.

    This is why I don’t believe it’s a stretch to compare the two situations.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | June 7, 2009, 12:07 pm
  27. AIG

    Speaking “truthfully” has nothing to do with smart politics.

    “Do you claim to know what the crucial issues are for the Lebanese swing voter? I am sure that many Christians leaning towards Aoun are rethinking their position.

    I guess YOU claim to know what the crucial issues are! 🙂 Maybe Feltman should be talking to you.

    In my experience, threats from the west usually lead to inconvenient outcomes, as far as Lebanon is concerned. This entire campaign season has been full of scare-mongering about the results of a win for either side, so the Lebanese know what the stakes are. Poking his head in at the last second to remind Christians which way they should be voting is not going to change anybody’s mind… except perhaps in the opposite direction.

    But we’ll know soon enough! At this stage I think that if M14 wins, it will almost feel like an upset! Odd, this business of Lebanese politics.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | June 7, 2009, 12:14 pm
  28. QN,

    Absolutely correct. When the Shiite ministers walked out on mass, along with one other non-Shiite -Christian- the justification was “the loss of credible Shiite representation’ as you correctly put it. The prevailing rational at the time was that the government breached the ‘concept’ of fair representation of one sect in the executive branch.

    However, this situation wouldn’t have arisen was it not for the perceived breach on the part of M8 of the then Cabinet Declaration during and in the aftermath of 2006 war with Israel, the declaration that brought the opposite polls together.

    I do not this that the same situation would prevail once the new majority, whoever it is, is declared.

    That is why I felt, and still do, with all due respect that it is a stretch to compare the two.

    Your contribution #27 above,

    Correct again. Scare mongering has been a unique, albeit distasteful feature of this campaign.

    I recall from memory, which isn’t these days as it once was, a statement by ‘independent’ candidate Misbah Al Ahdab in Tripoli suggesting in no uncertain terms that if the current opposition was to win the elections then we i.e. Lebanese would face the real prospect of Saudi Arabia reneging on its promises to support the national economy.

    Similarly, fear mongering abounded with statements suggesting the a vote for Hizbullah means a vote for an Islamic republic ala Iran; and that voting for M8 would be assisting in alienating Lebanon from the international community.

    The list of scare mongering goes on and on.

    If i am wrong blame my memory, but I haven’t read or heard of much fear mongering on the part of the current opposition; at least not to the extent of what we observed coming from the opposite camp; hence my hesitancy at accepting your premise in the above mentioned contribution that “..full of scare-mongering about the results of a win for either side …”.

    Regards
    Regards

    Posted by Question Marks | June 7, 2009, 12:40 pm

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