Thursday, March 7, 2013

Drawing a line in the sand on elections

Prime Minister Najib Mikati said two things of importance in his interview with MTV on Monday night. He backed the formation of a neutral Cabinet to oversee the upcoming parliamentary elections. And he said the government was committed to holding the elections on time, on the basis of the 1960 law if no consensus was reached on an alternative. Mikati made it clear that the so-called Orthodox proposal was not consensual, and affirmed the law would not be passed. A day later, both the prime minister and President Michel Sleiman signed a decree calling for elections to be held starting on June 9 on the basis of the 1960 law. The move angered the March 8 coalition, which complained that the maneuver was not only a violation of the separation of powers, but also sought to impose the 1960 law, which, various parliamentarians insisted, had lost all legitimacy.

How does one read Sleiman’s and Mikati’s action? Mikati’s most powerful weapon has always been the threat of resignation, which would leave Hezbollah hanging, having to forge a new government with a credible Sunni prime minister at its head, all to cover for the party’s continued retention of its weapons. And yet now Mikati has gone a step further, announcing that he intends to resign anyway and force Hezbollah to accept a neutral Cabinet to oversee elections, perhaps on the basis of a law it vehemently opposes.

Mikati says that the 1960 law is not one he favors. But as Michel Aoun opted for the Orthodox scheme rather than reiterate his backing for the proportional law passed by the government, the prime minister believes he is under no obligation to accommodate his partners’ U-turns. The Orthodox proposal is widely perceived by Sunnis as directed against them, and Mikati has no intention of paying a political price for endorsing a project that he finds abhorrent.

Sleiman and Mikati also sought to underline that they would not accept being held responsible for a vacuum come election time. The chances that a consensual law will replace the 1960 law are very low. If such a law happens to pass, the president and prime minister can always modify their decree. However, if no agreement is reached, as is likely, then both men can say they prepared a fall-back position to avert a void, shifting the burden of delaying elections onto others.

Particularly unhappy with their effort is Nabih Berri. The parliament speaker had insisted that the rival political groups arrive at a consensus law. Left unstated in his choreography was that continued deadlock would make more likely the adoption of laws that favored his interests and those of Hezbollah: the Orthodox proposal, the government’s proportional law, or Berri’s own mixed election project, all of which in one way or another are to the political advantage of March 8. Sleiman and Mikati undercut his strategy.

Why each man did so merits examination. Mikati, it is obvious, does not want to go into the history books as someone who harmed Sunni interests and alienated the Gulf states. What he promised on Monday was effectively what the Future Movement had sought for some time: an impartial government at election time and neutralization of the Orthodox proposal in favor of a 1960 law that is almost certain to bring victory to March 14. Beyond that, any measure that weakens Hezbollah can be sold to the Gulf states as containment of Iran, at a moment when Mikati needs Saudi approval to bolster the economy.

In this light the decision of the Gulf Cooperation Council states to send a letter to Sleiman warning that Lebanon was not abiding by the policy of disassociation in Syria’s conflict was worrisome. The GCC was, plainly, referring to Hezbollah, but Mikati’s and Sleiman’s stance could be held up as proof that the party is being resisted in Lebanon.

But what motivates Sleiman? The president presumably would gain from a delay in elections, since it would mean that his mandate is extended as well. Yet by setting a deadline for elections, he lessened the chances of this happening. Nor does his revival of the 1960 law help him among Christians, since most of his coreligionists regard the law as bad for Christian fortunes. Sleiman has taken the right decisions, but certainly not the ones that will buy him a political extension and communal popularity. If his overriding motive is principle, then perhaps we have a better president than we know.

Could it be that both Mikati and Sleiman are thinking of their legacy, and that this drives their blocking Lebanon’s mad drive toward communal and institutional breakdown? Amid the scheming surrounding an election law, and with each party floating proposals that advance their interests at the expense of the general welfare, the president and prime minister have laid down a marker to the contending political alignments: If you disagree with us, then bear full responsibility for reversing what we did.

One can protest that Mikati is pursuing a political agenda of his own. Perhaps he is, but he is no worse than Hezbollah or Aoun, who will vote in favor of government decisions, only to turn around and condemn them when this suits their aims. Aoun has become skilled at hammering governments in which his bloc is represented. Hezbollah has been just as duplicitous, for example approving of the disassociation policy in Syria, then ignoring it in practice.

The fate of the 1960 law is still in the air. Hezbollah parliamentarians have hinted that elections will not be held on the basis of the law, suggesting the party may resort to violence to prevent them from happening. But come June, Lebanon needs to vote and the only logical outcome is to do so according to a broadly accepted new law or, barring that, the law in place. On this issue, Saad Hariri has an ally in the prime minister. March 14 should take note.

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