Thursday, June 11, 2009

Berri will return, but don’t make it easy

With the elections over, the next battle is over the speakership of parliament. While there will be irate statements about whether Nabih Berri should be re-elected, the reality is that likely he will be. Berri doesn’t deserve it, but Syria wants him, and after its humiliation at the hands of the Iranians in the elections, and given the Saudi-Syrian rapprochement, Damascus’ demands will be heeded and the speaker made speaker once again. The real question is under what conditions he is brought in.

Some in March 14 are leaning toward the choice of putting up a candidate of their own, evidently Okab Sakr, against Berri, at least in the early rounds of voting. According to Article 44 of the constitution, to be elected on the first and second ballot, a speaker needs an absolute majority of parliamentary votes; only on the third ballot can he or she be elected by a simple majority. It’s not a bad idea to make Berri sweat, and putting him through three rounds of balloting before he gets elected, aside from the fact that it will affirm the post is not his private reserve, is also a way of imposing conditions with respect to how the speaker runs the legislature.

There are those in the majority, such as Walid Jumblatt, who will advise against this. The Druze leader has for several months tried to use his relationship with Berri to calm Druze-Shia tensions, and perhaps also to create the nucleus of a centrist bloc friendlier to Syria. That idea was shot to pieces by the election results, as most of the centrists, and the man who would have been their reference point, President Michel Sleiman, were humiliated by Hezbollah – and behind the party, of course, by Iran. Syria and Iran are not on the verge of a rift, but the Syrians would have liked to bolster the position of their allies and friends in Lebanon relative to Hezbollah. Instead, they saw Hezbollah and Iran block that scheme, as Shia and Armenians voted massively in favor of Michel Aoun, against a number of their traditional and possibly future allies.

This leads us back to Berri. Pity the speaker. Initially, he thought that he might have some room to vote against Aoun in Jbeil and Baabda, even as he was engaged in a fight with the general in Jezzine. In the end, however, Berri was made to order his supporters to vote for Aoun in the two constituencies, while also being trampled in Jezzine. So degrading a situation could only have been imposed by Hezbollah, and an educated guess says the party put Berri’s speakership on the line as pressure.

So now Berri has to satisfy both March 14 and Hezbollah, which means that both will delight in loading him down with demands. The majority should be careful. Berri is wily and any effort by March 14 to humble him would be used by the speaker to rally support to his side. The rationale for not bringing the speaker back on a first round of balloting must be carefully explained and justified. The most convincing argument is that, while the religious sects are reserved positions in the state, that does not mean they alone are entitled to choose who represents them.

In the same way that the Maronites do not on their own choose the president, or the Sunnis the prime minister, it is unacceptable that the Shia parties should be entitled to decide on Lebanon’s speaker. If Berri is to be re-elected as head of the parliament, he should be made to explain to all the parliamentary groups why he deserves to be so. He should outline some sort of legislative program; and he should commit himself to calling for a vote of confidence in his performance in two years’ time.

The latter idea is an unconstitutional innovation. According to Article 44, every second year of a parliamentary term, in its first annual session, parliament can withdraw its confidence from the speaker by a two-thirds decision. What March 14 might want to consider is to make Berri commit himself in his legislative program to return to parliament in 2011 and ask for a vote of confidence. The speaker is, of course, entitled to reject this, but if he is desperate enough to regain his post, and if he has to prove his bona fides to the majority, an unofficial pledge on his part may well be achievable. It would have moral rather than legal implications, but it may help keep Berri in line in the coming two years.

It’s funny how, in mentioning Taif, critics of the accord frequently complain that it has handed all power to the Sunni prime minister. Yet it’s Nabih Berri who has been immovable in the past 17 years, showing that the most enduring power in the country may yet lie with the Shia speaker. Berri has squandered his responsibilities for far too long to be given a free ride onto the parliamentary podium. Let him convince us, first, why we should trust him with so high a station.

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