We’ve entered the third week of deliberations over Lebanon’s next cabinet lineup, and there is no end in sight. Hariri has paid more house calls than a 19th century doctor in typhoid season, and yet for all we know, there isn’t even agreement on the most basic issues, like the number of ministers accorded to each side.
This is not entirely the fault of one man or one party or one coalition. Consider the various matrices that Hariri is operating with. In most parliamentary democracies, the goal of the ruling party is typically to form a government with the smallest possible coalition that can gain the confidence of the legislative chamber.
In Lebanon’s case, the goal is to form a government with the largest possible coalition without completely crippling the executive branch through perpetual veto-enforced gridlock. It’s not pretty, but this is the solution that everyone is committed to this time around.
Add to this opening principle a variety of other distributional conventions and you have a recipe for a very complicated process indeed. For example, the cabinet is typically supposed to be split equally between Christians and Muslims. Furthermore, Maronites, Sunnis, and Shiites are usually given the same share each. In a thirty-member cabinet, this would mean that there would have to be 15 Christians (e.g., 6 Maronites and 9 non-Maronites) and 15 Muslims (e.g., 6 Sunnis, 6 Shiites, and 3 Druzes).
Before you can go about parceling out seats, however, you need to know how many each coalition is going to get. Here we run into the old veto issue. Hariri is negotiating different opposition demands, ranging from Aoun and Frangieh’s request for full proportional representation (which would amount to 45% of the cabinet or 13 ministers), to a simple veto share (11 seats), to Hizbullah and Amal’s constructive ambiguity (which is presumably open to a 10 seat share along with certain “guarantees” in the cabinet declaration.)
Finally, there is the issue of foreign interests. Syria would like its allies to have a veto share and would like it even better if Hariri came to Damascus before announcing the cabinet (highly unlikely indeed). The Saudis would like to reserve as much power for M14, but there have been rumblings about a possible opening to Damascus as a means of drawing it back into the Arab fold. Given the number of square pegs awaiting insertion into round holes, where does a novice PM-designate even begin?
The formula most talked about is the so-called 15-10-5 split (for M14, M8, and the President, respectively), which has a certain elegance about it. For legislation on ordinary issues, M14 would not be able to push through its agenda without help from the President’s ministers, a fact that would seem to strengthen the President’s role as a true consensual figure, and not just a symbolic one.
At the same time, the opposition would not be able to block legislation on the “issues of national importance” that require a cabinet supermajority, without the help of the president as well. His ministers would represent the crucial swing vote.
If Hariri were to pursue this option, how would he parcel out the opposition’s share of 10 seats? My guess is that he’s planning to split them equally between Aoun’s Change & Reform Bloc and Hizbullah/Amal. Why? Let’s look at the numbers.
March 14 won 71 seats in the 128-seat parliament, which translates to 55%. March 8 won the remaining 45%. If we were to adopt General Aoun’s proposal that the cabinet lineup reflect the parliamentary balance, this would mean that M14 would get 17 seats in a 30 member cabinet and M8 would get 13. Of course, such an alignment would give the opposition its desired one-third-plus-one cabinet veto, which Hariri and co. would like to avoid, so full proportional represetation is out of the question for them. However, partial proportional representation may be the silver bullet.
According to the most generous calculation, Aoun’s Change & Reform Bloc won 28 seats in parliament (if you count Marada, Tashnaq, and the Wahdet al-Jabal Bloc [Talal Arslan, Bilal Farhat, Fadi A`war, and Naji Gharios]) or 21.9%. This share would represent 7 cabinet seats (6.56 to be exact) under a proportional scheme. Given that Hizbullah has routinely expressed its inclination to give up its own cabinet share to its electoral allies, this would permit Hariri to satisfy Aoun and Frangieh’s proportional demand without giving the opposition as a whole a blocking veto. Six or seven seats for Change & Reform plus three seats for Berri would seem to do the trick. No veto, but a face-saving exit for Aoun and Frangieh, and perhaps also a way for Hariri to begin mending fences with the FPM. Of course, it’s unlikely that Berri will agree to having only 3 seats compared to Aoun’s 7, but that’s their problem, not Hariri’s.
Aoun’s lieutenants have been uncharacteristically supportive of Hariri in recent days (Bassil: “We have an interest in the success of Saad Hariri”) and so this is perhaps what they are angling for with the insistence on proportional representation.