We hear a lot of rhetoric these days from FPM leaders about Saad al-Hariri’s arrogant unilateralism in his cabinet-formation dealings, a unilateralism that they say violates the constitutional principle of “communal coexistence” (Preamble, clause j). Accompanying this argument is the occasional complaint about the Ta’if Accord, which (so the Aounists say) stripped the Maronite President of his powers and vested them in the Sunni Prime Minister.
I’ve heard this argument so many times that I think it’s worth dedicating a post and a debate to it. In my opinion, the Aounist position grossly oversimplies matters. Although the Ta’if Accord did give the Prime Minister the authority to form the government – free from binding parliamentary consultations – it did not turn him into an executive colossus, like the pre-Ta’if Maronite president.
Before Ta’if, the Prime Minister, the Council of Ministers, and even the Chamber of Deputies served at the pleasure of the President. He had the authority to appoint, fire, and dissolve at whim. The current powers of the Prime Minister are much more limited.
In particular, the Prime Minister’s ability to appoint a government is constitutionally checked in two ways:
- The President must sign off on the cabinet (Article 53.4);
- The Chamber of Deputies (i.e. parliament) must give the cabinet its vote of confidence before it can act (Article 64). This means that the premier cannot simply form the cabinet of his choice, as the Free Patriotic Movement leaders allege; he is bound by the demands of (at least half) the parliament, as well as those of the President.
As we saw last week, a Prime Minister’s cabinet proposal can easily be derailed by the Parliament if it fails to satisfy certain bloc leaders. Even though the Lebanese opposition did not have the votes in Parliament to block Hariri’s lineup, two of his own key allies – the Lebanese Forces and the Kata’eb – opposed it, thereby condemning his efforts to failure. What seems to frustrate the FPM is that their wishes don’t hold as much weight as the wishes of Hariri’s own allies, but this is surely not the fault of the Lebanese Constitution.
As easy as it is to be cynical about the standoff, however, it has brought many important questions about the architecture of Lebanon’s political system to the surface. With no Syrian hegemon around to herd cats and crack heads, we are finally seeing the Ta’if Accord put to the test, as Lebanese politicians try to exploit every ambiguity and apparent loophole in the Constitution to maximize their political gains.
This is a good thing. Under the best circumstances, it has the potential to force Lebanon to address structural problems of representation and democratic process, and to perhaps arrive at a better framework. However, this will only happen if the current crisis is framed as a debate about constitutional amendments — like Ta’if — rather than about one-time political deals — like the Doha Agreement.
The only person who can do this is the President of the Republic, who is the sole figure tasked with acting as the guarantor of the Constitution. If I were one of his advisors, I would tell him to insist upon the following principle: he should not sign the decree forming any cabinet unless the principle used to form that cabinet is enshrined in the Constitution as an amendment.
In other words, if the cabinet is formed using the principle of proportional representation (which is what the FPM is demanding) – where each bloc gets a share equivalent to its weight in parliament – then this should be the model used from now on. If blocs are given the right to choose their own ministers, then that’s what should happen from now on. And so on and so forth.
This will have the effect of forcing all sides to consider the long-term potential effects of their short-term demands. Does the FPM really want to strip the Prime Minister of the authority to form a government, thereby condemning every government from now on to be a national unity government, with all the deadlock and inefficiency that this entails?
If so, then what powers should be reserved for the Prime Minister to mediate effectively between all the different groups guaranteed seats in the cabinet? What principle should govern the distribution of portfolios? Who is the final arbiter?
As long as the Lebanese opposition continues to call into question the legitimacy of the Prime Minister’s powers — on the basis that they violate a constitutional principle of communal coexistence — they should be asked to present an alternative, in the form of a constitutional amendment. That way, we won’t have to watch this movie again four years from now.