Thursday, September 27, 2007

A majority that refuses to act like one

The two-month period to elect a new president has begun, and not surprisingly it started with a deal. On Tuesday, Parliament was called into session to find a successor to Emile Lahoud. Instead, the speaker, Nabih Berri, bought an extra month to haggle over a consensus candidate. That may be what many Lebanese want, but the result will not be stability.

The deal was roughly this, according to parliamentarians present in the assembly room: Berri rescheduled the parliamentary session until October 23, but not on the grounds that a two-thirds quorum was absent. In exchange, March 14 removed from Deputy Parliament Speaker Farid Makari's public statement a paragraph maintaining its right to vote for a president by an absolute majority of at least 65 parliamentarians. In that way the majority avoided recognizing the opposition's insistence on a two-thirds quorum in all rounds of voting for president. Berri, in turn, locked majority leader Saad Hariri into weeks of negotiations that risk breaking the unity and momentum of March 14 - a vital ingredient in the coalition's efforts to bring in a new president without the opposition's acquiescence.

The tactical differences between Hariri and Walid Jumblatt on the presidency are now out in the open, and this is beginning to seriously hamper the strategy of March 14. However, it is not just Jumblatt and his allies who were displeased with the implications of the Hariri-Berri arrangement. Other parliamentarians aligned with neither politician were equally disturbed that the majority had missed an occasion to elect a president on its own, which would have affirmed its status as a majority.

To be realistic, however, there was no way that March 14 was going to elect a president on Tuesday. Hariri has been under great Saudi pressure to compromise, while Jumblatt knows that a president brought in by March 14 would need to have a prior guarantee of Saudi, American, and European recognition to be politically viable. That recognition may yet come if Syria and the opposition continue to hinder the election process, but it does not exist today. Hariri simply had no latitude to avoid Berri's trap of setting a timeframe to find a consensus candidate.

That said, March 14 cannot afford a consensus president, since such a person is bound to be critically weak. Hariri reportedly intends to be the next prime minister. This will lead to the creation of an unwieldy "political" Cabinet in which all major political forces are represented, and in which the opposition's right of veto power has already been recognized. That veto power, together with Berri's control over parliamentary procedure and the ongoing effort by Syria to brutally change the numbers in Parliament, will give the opposition effective control over policy. An anemic president will be in no position to alter this situation, leading to deepening polarization. The majority will have surrendered executive power in the government in exchange for a nonentity as head of state.

The real fight in the coming months will be over who dominates the government. The presidency is important, but many politicians seem to have forgotten what the crisis during the last 10 months has been all about: the opposition's demand to block Cabinet decisions. Nor have enough people in March 14 sufficiently grasped the significance of what has for months been a Syrian and opposition stipulation: that Fouad Siniora is unacceptable as prime minister of a new government.

The majority has made a serious tactical error in not picking up on that condition - either to reject it outright or accept it in return for an exorbitant concession. Instead, Siniora has found himself with little overt backing among the majority - because this might be perceived as an effort to thwart Hariri's prime ministerial ambitions - so he has unnecessarily been sold cheap. Worse, opposition groups will make Hariri sweat before he heads a new government, though they ardently want him to take the post. They know that once in office he would have to accept daily compromises merely to hold his government together, making him less effective on a wide range of key issues, from government support for the Hariri tribunal to implementation of United Nations resolutions.

What can the majority do to break out of its glass box? First, it must come to an agreement on a single presidential candidate who, to borrow from Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, is to March 14 what Berri is to March 8. In other words, the majority's candidate, whoever that person might be, should be open to all sides, but make it a priority to firm up the achievements of the 2005 Independence Intifada. March 14 must then announce that this candidate will be elected by an absolute majority on October 23, unless it can agree with the opposition beforehand on another candidate who has the same general political orientation and objectives.

The current strategy of the majority of having two candidates in hand - Boutros Harb for a consensus, let's say, and Nassib Lahoud for the confrontation - is not working. In fact, the tactic is dividing March 14, as every Maronite in sight contrives to gain the upper hand. The majority is a majority and has every right to announce whom it intends to elect. The opposition can ask for reassurances that this person will take its interests into consideration, but it shouldn't be granted the authority to shoot down all those it doesn't like. After all, what is the value of a majority in the shadow of a minority's right to brandish a perpetual veto?

A second step March 14 must take is to insist that Fouad Siniora is its candidate as prime minister of any new government. This would demonstrate the majority's commitment to a government made up mainly of technocrats, not political heavyweights. It could justify this on the grounds that Lebanon is today in need of expertise, particularly social and economic expertise, not the divisiveness a political Cabinet will generate.

And third, in the coming weeks the parliamentary majority must rally Arab and international support behind its strategy of electing a candidate on October 23 by an absolute majority; that is if it cannot arrive at a compromise with Berri on someone else who might better please the opposition while also fulfilling the majority's conditions of securing Lebanese sovereignty and independence, upholding the Hariri tribunal, and implementing UN resolutions. Saudi endorsement of the majority's candidate will go a long way toward containing a Hizbullah counter-reaction, since the party will want to avoid Sunni-Shiite clashes.

Opposition parties have hijacked the presidential election process and are trying to deny the majority its democratic right to act like a majority. In the face of such brazenness, March 14 has to deploy some audacity of its own. Parliamentarians are being picked off one by one. Tiptoeing around a bogus consensus is futile when the problem has become existential.

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