I’ve written an opinion piece on the senselessness of consensual politics for The National. It will be out in print this Friday, but the editors at The Review have agreed to put it up a couple of days early on the website, given the timeliness of the subject matter.
The first few paragraphs are below. Finish reading it on The National’s website, and then come on back to comment.
All for None
What’s wrong with Lebanon? Nearly four months after a landmark election handed the western-backed March 14 coalition a victory over the opposition alliance of Hizbollah, Amal and the Free Patriotic Movement, all efforts to form a government have failed. Rather than taking advantage of his coalition’s victory by putting together a cabinet composed exclusively of his own allies, prime minister-designate Saad Hariri has spent weeks coaxing and cajoling the opposition to join him in a national unity government, in which they would wield significant power.
His reasons for doing so are manifold. On the one hand, his coalition no longer commands a clear majority in parliament, due to the recent defection of the mercurial Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. At the same time, there are the wishes of an important regional ally to consider: Saudi Arabia, which is believed to be courting Syrian co-operation in Iraq in exchange for prodding its Lebanese dependants, the March 14 coalition, into a power-sharing arrangement with Hizbollah. Most importantly, Hariri seems determined to avoid a return to the polarisation of the previous parliamentary term, during which the opposition, demanding more power, quit the government and went on to paralyse the country with massive demonstrations, strikes and an 18-month downtown sit-in.
The opposition’s objective then, as it is now, was to replace the majority cabinet with a national unity government in which it would have veto power over important legislation. Appealing to the timeworn argument that Lebanon cannot be ruled by simple majorities because of its diverse sectarian make-up, leaders like Hassan Nasrallah and Michel Aoun have insisted on transforming the principle of consensual decision-making from an abstract desideratum into a practical necessity.
While March 14 figures have publicly insisted on upholding their prerogative to form a majority cabinet, they too have quietly accepted the idea of sharing power by virtue of a face-saving compromise, the so-called “15-10-5 formula”. Under this arrangement, March 14 would control half the seats of a 30-member cabinet; the opposition would control 10 seats (one short of the votes required to veto major legislation); and the President, Michel Suleiman, would appoint the last five ministers, with the understanding that one of them would be free to vote with the opposition on major, “life-and-death” issues (such as the matter of Hezbollah’s weapons).
The fact that even the majority parties have been more interested in trying to get the best deal they can under this framework, rather than questioning its legitimacy in the first place, betrays their belief – to paraphrase Churchill – that while consensual democracy may be the worst form of government, it is better than all the others.