Lebanon, Reform

A Reality TV Show Proposal: “Repair Lebanon”

Hendrik Hertzberg, writing in last week’s New Yorker, describes a fascinating new populist initiative called Repair California, which aims to solve that state’s governance problems (legislative gridlock, huge budget deficits, bureaucratic inefficiencies) through a citizen-sponsored constitutional convention. Here are the salient bits of the article:

repaircalifornia“California, it turns out, is ungovernable. Its public schools, once the nation’s best, are now among the worst. Its transportation and water systems are deteriorating. Its prisons are so overcrowded that it has to turn tens of thousands of felons loose. And its legislature has spent most of the year in a farcical effort to pass the annual budget, leaving little or no time for other matters, such as—well, schools, transportation, water, and prisons. This is “normal”: the same thing has happened in eighteen of the past twenty-two years. But the addition of economic disaster to legislative paralysis may have brought California to a tipping point.”

One of California’s biggest problems, says Hertzberg, is that its legislature only controls about 7% of the state budget, assuming it can even muster the necessary two thirds majority to pass the budget in the first place. The state’s citizens have had enough, and change may be on the way:

“It started almost exactly one year ago, modestly enough, with an op-ed piece in the San Francisco Chronicle. Echoing Jefferson, the author, Jim Wunderman, wrote, “It is our duty to declare that our California government is not only broken, it has become destructive to our future. Therefore, are we not obligated to nullify our government and institute a new one?” He then called for a “citizens’ constitutional convention” to do the nullifying and the instituting… Wunderman’s op-ed manifesto engendered a broad response, and the response has engendered something like a movement.

That movement, called Repair California, is trying to put two initiatives on next year’s ballot. One would amend the California constitution to allow the voters to call a constitutional convention by initiative… The other would actually call the convention and specify its scope: governance, including the structure of the legislative and executive branches; elections, including the electoral system and the initiative process itself; the budget-making process; and the state’s revenue relationship with local government.

The genius of Repair California’s approach is twofold. First, it steers clear of “social issues”: no gay marriage, no abortion, no affirmative action. Second, the delegates would be chosen randomly from the adult population. (Appointed delegates, Repair California reasons, would be beholden to whoever appointed them; and if the delegates were elected, the elections would inevitably be low-turnout affairs dominated by money and the organized clout of special interests.) The convention itself would be an exercise in what is called “deliberative democracy.” The delegates would spend months studying the issues, consulting experts, debating among themselves, and forging a consensus. The result would be put to a vote of the people, yes or no, in November of 2012.”

Did anyone else get chills reading this? No? Well, neither did I, of course. That would be incredibly dorky. Ahem. But even if the hairs on the back of your neck didn’t rise out of sheer exhiliration, then surely the parallels between California’s governance problems and those of a certain country dear to all of our hearts jumped right out at you, didn’t they? Of course they did…

A Lebanese constitutional convention organized by citizens is certainly out of the question during our lifetimes, but I have an alternative proposal that is entirely more feasible: a reality TV show that applies the same principle of deliberative democracy by ordinary people to the Lebanese scene.

Some enterprising TV producer should create a weekly primetime reality show that tasks a group of ordinary Lebanese — men and women of different ages and regional/religious backgrounds — to “repair Lebanon”. Each hour-long episode would be dedicated to a single major issue — e.g. educational reform, health care, the electoral law, etc. — and would document the group’s efforts to come to consensus on the best way to “repair” the problem under consideration.

reality_tvGiven that these would be ordinary people from various professional backgrounds, the producers would have to bring in experts to “testify” before the group on what they regard to be the ideal solution for the problem at hand. The group would take all of these testimonies under consideration and deliberate together en route to making a final decision, which they would present at the end of each episode.

I imagine it being filmed in a kind of “guerilla style”: raw, unglossy, close to the action, as members of the group hit the streets to research the issues, meeting with politicians, business leaders, activist groups, and ordinary beleaguered citizens like themselves. It would also be interesting to watch the inevitable personality conflicts between group members bubble up through the arduous task of reaching consensus, which the producers could showcase through one-on-one interviews and lots of captured “candid” fights and arguments. (People at home love that stuff).

A variation on this theme could pit several groups against each other in a kind of weekly competition to come up with the best solution. At the end of each episode, viewers at home could vote for their choice via SMS, à la American Idol.

Now, I can already hear many of you snickering at how incredibly geeky this idea sounds, but trust me when I tell you that it would be a smash hit. After all, political talk shows are among the highest-rated TV programs in the country. If Lebanese all around the world can sit through several hours of Kalam al-Nass, al-Haq Yuqal, Nuqta Fasleh, Naharkon Sa`eed, Fakker Martein, Bi-kull Jar’a, and al-Fasad each week (not to mention the interminable weekly press conferences of their various leaders), then surely they could make room for an entertaining show about real people addressing real problems.

So what do you say? Any producers out there?

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32 thoughts on “A Reality TV Show Proposal: “Repair Lebanon”

  1. Will the Hizballah representatives on the show be with their guns? If so, I think “consensus” will be reached quickly.

    Posted by AIG | August 24, 2009, 4:51 pm
  2. I think that Lebanon is in dire need of popular demonstrations in Qraitem to remind Sa’ad Hariri that he is a PM designate and that means forming a cabinet. Furthermore it is time for a politician with “chutzpah/audacity” to explain the workings of a majoritarian democracy. Consensual democracy does not work and has not worked anywhere, actually whenever it has been tried it winds up being a majoritarian rule anyway.

    Your proposed game offers possibilities especially if it deals with the quasi-taboo issues of total separation of the state from confessionalism. Political feudalism and/or sectarian proportional representation are the bane of what has been a dysfunctional state ever since its inception. Let the games begin, we have nothing to loose except our backward political system 🙂

    Posted by Ghassan Karam | August 24, 2009, 5:24 pm
  3. Ghassan

    I agree with you. Hariri needs to make a move. This is getting ridiculous. He needs to make his offer, try to gain the confidence of the Chamber of Deputies, and step aside if he fails.

    We should have a time limit for these things: three weeks, maximum.

    AIG, how long did Bibi spend forming the current government?

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | August 24, 2009, 6:07 pm
  4. hahahahaha…..”would document the group’s efforts to come to consensus ”

    Seeing as the best way to get 5 opinions on a subject in Lebanon is by putting 3 people in a room, would this shows real genius be in providing the Lebanese of proof (if any were needed) that we can agree on anything as long as the agreement is to agree to disagree?

    How long on this show before the Christian gets paranoid and says he wants more say because the rest are out to get him? How many times will the Druze guy agree with one side and then the other? Will the Sunni look down on the rest as being beneath him? And will the Shia guy sit with his back to the group the entire time doing something hidden from view? And maybe we can have an American, a Syrian, an Iranian and a Saudi drop by from time to time and give their “No one should interfere but I’m just sayin'” speeches?

    This show may not resolve any problems but it has entertainment potential!

    Posted by mo | August 24, 2009, 7:36 pm
  5. It took Bibi a few weeks as he was trying to get Kadima in. I think you do not understand exactly how coalition governments work and how they are formed.

    The raison etre of a coalition is that you need a MAJORITY in the parliament to rule effectively (I hope why this is so needs not be explained). Being together in a coalition means you have a rather strong agreement to vote together on almost all issues thus guaranteeing the government an almost automatic majority in the parliament. All this is written up in an agreement, called the coalition agreement which the parties in the coalition have to approve BEFORE joining the government. The agreement is very specific, as it specifies EXACTLY on which issues the MPs have the right to vote as they please and on which issues they are mandated to vote the coalition line even if they don’t agree with this completely. Of course, the agreement also details who gets what ministry etc.

    If you don’t have a tradition of working within this kind of framework, you get a mess because you cannot get a functioning coalition and you get very frequent elections. Israeli politicians have learned to compromise in order not to break up coalitions and go to early elections. Even so, these occur often. The typical Israeli government does not last 4 years because as time progresses and things change, the coalition partners are confronted with new situations on which they differ. You cannot foresee all issues in advance and people also change their minds.

    How can Hariri form a government if he does not have a majority in parliament? If he has, where is the coalition agreement? (By law in Israel, these must be made public). If the PSP can vote whatever they want, how can Hariri rule???

    Since FM is leading the caretaker government anyway, why should they be in a rush to create a new government? If I were Hariri I would block any possible government until Jumblatt comes back to the fold based on a firm agreement. If not, Hariri should push for new elections. I can’t imagine that the PSP would join a government that is made of Aoun and Hizballah and does not represent the Sunnis. That is, even if Aoun and Hizballah would be willing to form such a government.

    Bottom line. Just be patient and let Hariri do his thing. Coalition building is a tradition that takes years to build. Jumblatt I think did not understand full well the implications when he left M14. Either he commits to a binding coalition agreement with Hariri and then what he did becomes irrelevant or it will take a very long time to get a government if at all.

    Posted by AIG | August 24, 2009, 7:42 pm
  6. AIG,

    “I think you do not understand exactly how coalition governments work and how they are formed.”

    No, I think I do. 🙂

    First of all, the Israeli situation is not nearly as stable as you make it out to be. I believe that the average longevity of a government in Israel since the electoral law changed in the mid 90’s has been 22 months, so not even half the 4 year term.

    But I’d take your shorter-term governments any day over Lebanon’s current paralysis. As you said, March 14 (without Jumblatt) does not have a majority in parliament. There should be a time limit within which a PM-designate must see if s/he can muster the votes to build a coalition. If Hariri can’t do it with Jumblatt within an acceptable time frame, then he needs to step aside and let someone else have a crack at it.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | August 24, 2009, 8:14 pm
  7. Mo,

    Congratulations. You’ve just been nominated as the [fill in the sect] member of the reality show.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | August 24, 2009, 8:18 pm
  8. BTW, I’ll be in New York City tomorrow, taking my kid to the zoo. If anybody wants to stop by the lion cage and say hello, shoot me an email.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | August 24, 2009, 8:21 pm
  9. QN,
    I meant that Lebanese in general do not understand coalition governments as I discern from the many comments.

    I agree there should be a time frame for government formation. That is part of the law in Israel. However, I don’t see how this can help in the current Lebanese situation. Nobody is going to agree to a government with a non-FM Sunni, especially Aoun and Hizballah. So who can form a government but Hariri?

    Posted by AIG | August 24, 2009, 8:25 pm
  10. Qifa,

    I find interesting the idea that random people could be randomly selected to hold official positions. Wasn’t that how Greek democracy was practiced? I shiver however at the idea of your average Toni, Mahmood, or Hsein filling public office. Oh wait! they already are, never mind then 😛 But I think that achieving a society sophisticated enough where any citizen is as qualified as the rest to govern, is an interesting ideal.

    I read recently that in order to attract the younger generation into politics, Israel is considering creating a wiki entry where the people can draft and edit their constitution: http://haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1101164.html

    I think something similar should be done in Lebanon, however it might not be very productive without a proper civics education.

    Posted by Haytham | August 24, 2009, 8:47 pm
  11. Nobody is going to agree to a government with a non-FM Sunni, especially Aoun and Hizballah. So who can form a government but Hariri?

    I don’t see why Miqati can’t be PM. Aoun and Hizbullah would be fine with him. Syria would love him. The Saudis might chafe a little but they’d be fine too in the end.

    He’d be a much better choice.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | August 24, 2009, 9:16 pm
  12. “I don’t see why Miqati can’t be PM. Aoun and Hizbullah would be fine with him. Syria would love him. The Saudis might chafe a little but they’d be fine too in the end.”

    First, how would Miqati have a majority? Do you think Jumblatt would support him against the FM? Highly unlikely if he wants to straddle the middle.

    Do you think Hizballah and Amal would want to set the precedent that ANY shia in the government makes it consensual and that he/she does not need to be from Hizballah/Amal? Based on what they said in the past, clearly not. Don’t you remember the talk about the shia’s in the government have to be ones that really represent the majority of the shia community? Miqati is not an option because he is not in FM which 80%+ of the sunnis support.

    Posted by AIG | August 24, 2009, 9:48 pm
  13. Miqati wouldn’t step in as a competitor to Saad. He would come in as an FM/M14/Saudi-sponsored replacement to a PM-designate who clearly is not up to the task. So Jumblatt wouldn’t be supporting him against Hariri.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | August 24, 2009, 10:14 pm
  14. Why would Hariri and the FM agree to that? It makes no sense for them. If Miqati can broker a deal with Jumblatt, let him do it as an advisor to Hariri; that will be their stance. FM will soundly reject any sunni PM designate not from FM on the basis that he doesn’t represent the sunnis.

    The government formation is going to take a long time unless Jumblatt sees the light and signs a strong coalition agreement. Given his recent public remarks, I don’t see that happening soon.

    Posted by AIG | August 24, 2009, 10:47 pm
  15. AIG/QN,
    I cannot resist participating in this discussion. May I suggest another two names to consider: Safadi who has been preparing for this for years and Salam who would be the accidental PM.
    Both have strong March 14 credentials, good relations with Saudi Arabia and at least Safadi has good ties to Damascus plus the EU.

    Posted by Ghassan Karam | August 25, 2009, 12:26 am
  16. I wonder what sect Puck is….

    P.S. AIG can you explain why the party with the most votes wasn’t allowed to form a government? I don’t really understand why Netenyahu became PM and not Livni.

    Posted by sean | August 25, 2009, 12:28 am
  17. The Israeli President consults with all the elected parties and asks them who they want as PM. He then appoints the person most likely to form a government to do so. The PM designate then has a limited time period to attempt this. Over 60 Knesset members recommended Bibi as PM to Peres (the pres) and so naturally he gave Bibi the first chance to form a government. Even if he would have appointed Livni as PM designate it would not have mattered since Bibi would have unofficially sealed his majority coalition in parallel thus blocking her. So instead of wasting time, Peres did the rational thing and gave Bibi the first chance. Since Livni was not able to create a blocking coalition, it shows that most MKs wanted Bibi. The only reason the coalition took time to form was because Bibi tried bringing Livni and Kadima in also. Otherwise, he could have formed a coalition in a couple of days. Sometimes these things can move fast. The first Begin government coalition was created the night of the elections because everyone in it was interested in getting the Labor care taker government out of power quickly.

    I don’t know how it is in Lebanon, but in Israel care taker governments have all the power of regular governments but cannot be voted out by the Knesset and ministers cannot resign. So when there is an adminstration change (likud replacing labor or vice versa), the new governments are usually formed very quickly so as to get to the reigns of power as fast as possible.

    But since Hariri is already in power, why should he be in a hurry to form a government?

    Posted by AIG | August 25, 2009, 1:13 am
  18. Ghassan Karam,

    I don’t think that the issues with Jumblatt are related to who is the PM. In the end, to rule effectively, FM must have an agreement with the PSP that they vote together on almost all issues. Otherwise, the government will be a farce and Jumblatt would have much more influence than he electorally deserves. On every issue Jumblatt can create a coalition crisis and threaten to topple the government by supporting a no-confidence vote with the opposition. Why would the FM and their allies in M14 agree to 4 years of constant blackmail and ineffectiveness? The PSP are either part of the coalition or they aren’t. They can’t have it both ways.

    Posted by AIG | August 25, 2009, 1:25 am
  19. hey man great idea and I’m sure you know the famous Ziad Al-Rahbani film amercy taweel which he demonstrates the whole Lebanese scene back then, but still most of the Lebanese when they listen to the play, they don’t get the point of it and they only wait until some cursing are out [lah ya akho el-manyouki] so they can laugh to it, they think it’s only comedy. I love the idea as I said, and as a Lebanese who don’t recognize any of the political bullshit and political clowns in Lebanon I would love to take part of this reality show if it comes to birth on day, though I’m not sure if the Lebanese will get the point out of it at the end.

    Posted by moeali | August 25, 2009, 6:40 am
  20. Mr Harri does have a Parliamentary majority – the PSP has repeatedly said that it supports on confidence and money supply – where March 14 doesn’t have a majority is on individual policies – that’s fine, it means Parliament and its committees have better ability to effect greater scrutiny over ministers than is historically the case.

    Posted by Sofia | August 25, 2009, 6:44 am
  21. AIG,
    When did I mention Jumblatt in this thread? You must be confusing me with someone else.

    Posted by Ghassan Karam | August 25, 2009, 7:01 am
  22. AIG

    There are other Sunni politicians who would be seen as legitimate PM’s in Lebanon. The FM has the infrastructure and the patronage network to dominate the Sunni community but there are many other respected figures like Salim al-Hoss, Miqati, Safadi, etc. who would be acceptable PM’s.

    Saad himself said that he would not even join the government if March 14 lost the election. Part of this was a rhetorical ploy to get out the Sunni vote. But it is important to recognize the fact that he he didn’t ever make the argument: “I will not participate AND THEREFORE the government will be illegitimate.” He said: “I would prefer to be in the opposition,” thereby accepting the notion that a different Sunni would be Prime Minister.

    Similarly, I think that many Shiites would be fine with a different speaker like Hussein al-Husseini (who is from neither Amal and Hizbullah) as long as he respects the resistance, which has huge support among Shiites.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | August 25, 2009, 8:13 am
  23. QN,
    Maybe he did not make the actual argument that the government would be illegitimate, but it was implicit in what he said when taken in the context of what Hizballah and Amal had been saying.

    Here is a simple thought experiment. What would be the chances of forming a government that Amal would call legitimate if al-Husseini were made speaker? Exactly 0. Amal and Hizballah would boycott any attempt to create a government until Berri was reinstated speaker again. What the Shia population think is not that important relative to what Amal and Hizballah leadership think.

    The same applies to FM. Either the PM is from FM or there is no legitimate government in the eyes of the FM and their followers. If my instincts are correct, Hariri will not accept a Syrian appointee or some other billionaire.

    More than that. The issue is not personal. Creating a government in which the PM does not even have a majority of the ministers behind him is giving back power to Syria and the opposition. I think Hariri is not going to accept that. Listen to Sfeir for the true thoughts of Hariri. He wants a majority that will enable him to govern, both in the cabinet and the parliament.

    Posted by AIG | August 25, 2009, 11:42 am
  24. AIG, et al,

    An interesting article. Looks like some Lebanese are refusing Hezbo’s “offer” to convert their homes into weapon-storage facilities.


    Posted by Akbar Palace | August 25, 2009, 2:48 pm
  25. AIG

    I think the Sunni dynamic is very different from the Shiite one. Your reading of Hizbullah and Amal’s strategy is accurate, in my opinion. But the FM’s relationship to Lebanon’s Sunnis is very different.

    Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Jumblatt decides to switch sides completely, and March 8 becomes the majority. In that case, Hizbullah and Amal would probably still prefer to have Hariri be PM for all the reasons you mention about not setting a precedent, etc. But if Hariri decided to boycott the government, he wouldn’t do so as a ploy to empty it of legitimacy on the same grounds that Hizbullah used back in 2006.

    Creating a government in which the PM does not even have a majority of the ministers behind him is giving back power to Syria and the opposition. I think Hariri is not going to accept that. Listen to Sfeir for the true thoughts of Hariri. He wants a majority that will enable him to govern, both in the cabinet and the parliament.

    I agree with this point about what Hariri wants, but then how do you explain him tripping over his feet to include everybody and his brother in the cabinet?

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | August 25, 2009, 4:32 pm
  26. QN,

    Hariri senior was murdered because he stopped being a total Syrian lackey and a formidable force of his own. Hariri junior is not going back to the bad old days. I agree that he is not elegant in public life, but neither were Rabin or Sharon. Rabin would make mistakes in Hebrew till his death. We will have to wait and see if Hariri is effective which is what really counts.

    Posted by AIG | August 25, 2009, 6:26 pm
  27. Really? What was Rabin’s first language?

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | August 25, 2009, 6:40 pm
  28. Btw, is AIG really more interested in the niceties of Lebanese political life than all the Lebanese readers of this blog???

    Shame shame shame…

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | August 25, 2009, 6:41 pm
  29. QN,
    It is quite likely Rabin’s parents spoke Yiddish at home, though I am not sure. He has no excuse though because all the schools he went to were Hebrew schools. He never got the hang of which nouns were masculine and which feminine and always made mistakes. His public speeches were very similar to his military briefings, duller than watching grass grow. In public, he never showed a sense of humor or any rhetorical abilities.

    BUT, he was a very talented man. A great general with an analytic mind and very good management capabilities. In private he had the ability to make himself liked (he was ultra successful as the Israeli ambassador to the US). I agree that Hariri does not bring into politics the many military accomplishments of Rabin. But give him a chance. Maybe the apple didn’t fall far from the tree…

    Posted by AIG | August 25, 2009, 10:26 pm
  30. Thus far, it looks like what fell from the tree wasn’t even an apple.

    But what choice do we have but to wait?

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | August 25, 2009, 10:29 pm
  31. ad ma hasarit rasa bi el-orange, ha el-apple nisyet hala

    Posted by PN | August 26, 2009, 4:59 am

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