Friday, May 17, 2013

It’s vacuum time, again

Rejoice, the Orthodox proposal has now been declared dead. But the question, now that an alternative hybrid election proposal has also been withdrawn, is what comes next, amid signs that Lebanon may be entering a prolonged political vacuum?

The maneuvers and insincerity surrounding the Orthodox proposal were dizzying. Samir Geagea drove the final nail into the coffin of the scheme by declaring that it had no chance of being passed, and backing the hybrid proposal that blended a winner take all system with proportional representation. Geagea did the right thing in abandoning a law that would have been a disaster for his Maronite community, for Christians in general, and for the March 14 coalition.

The greatest anomaly was Michel Aoun. He is now attacking the Lebanese Forces for having dumped the Orthodox proposal. In reality, Aoun was trapped by his opposition to the 1960 law, because, tactically, he felt this would win him more popularity in the Christian community. What he wouldn’t say is that the 1960 law was the best thing that ever happened to him. It ensured that pro-Aoun Shiite electorates in Baabda and Jbeil, and even Kisirwan and the Metn in very tight races, would turn the tide the Aounists’ way.

This reality is what gave the general such large majorities in the last two elections, even though at the popular level the Aounists managed to lose Christian votes in relative terms. If anything explained Geagea’s rejection of the 1960 law, it was the fact that it twice gave Shiite electorates the deciding vote in Christian areas.   

Now Aoun has accused the Lebanese Forces of not being serious about the Orthodox proposal (when they were), which means that he finds himself defending a project that would have lost him many seats in parliament. For the Orthodox proposal, whatever its many shortcomings, would have weakened Aoun significantly.

Under the Orthodox proposal the general would have won seats in proportion to his appeal among his coreligionists. And since the Lebanese Forces and Kataeb, as well as other Christians opposed to Aoun, make up a sizable number of Christians, perhaps even a majority, there is no way that Aoun could have held on to the same bloc of seats that he had won under the 1960 law.  

Most interesting in this entire episode was how the Lebanese Forces kept lines open to the speaker of parliament, Nabih Berri. It was Berri who came up with the idea of a hybrid law as a compromise when the Orthodox proposal proved so divisive. He had initially urged March 14 to present its own preferred project which he could put to discussion before parliament against the Orthodox proposal. For weeks March 14 failed to come up with one, until Geagea agreed to drop the Orthodox proposal and re-enter the March 14 fold. Precisely what he was offered for this reversal is not yet clear.

Hezbollah supports Aoun on the Orthodox plan, but in reality its paramount aim is to deny March 14 a parliamentary majority. Now that the Future Movement has rejected the hybrid proposal (implicitly because it would bring in a March 8 majority), parliament will see its mandate extended, freezing the situation that we have today. In other words, Walid Jumblatt will continue to hold the balance between March 8 and March 14, depending on the issue.

The real concern underlining the election law was who would control the Lebanese state in the event of the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. This was Hezbollah’s preoccupation, and it still is. The party cares little about the intricacies of election laws for as long as they achieve two objectives: ensure that Hezbollah maintains a headlock on the Shiite community; and prevent the party’s opponents from taking over the government, parliament, and presidency.

That is why Hezbollah’s focus today is on the government. Tammam Salam has struggled to cobble a cabinet together, and Hezbollah has rejected his idea of an 8-8-8 configuration of ministers (split equally between March 8, March 14, and centrists). “How can 45 percent of Lebanon’s parliamentarians who are from our coalition be represented by just one-third of ministers?” declared Hezbollah’s deputy secretary general, Naim Qassem, on Wednesday.

One would be tempted to answer that there is no constitutional stipulation that a government must reflect the weight of seats in parliament, but Qassem’s reaction shows that Salam’s headaches are far from over. With parliamentary elections unlikely to take place any time soon, suddenly the identity of Salam’s government – namely one that is in for the long haul, and that must embody national unity – has been imposed by political circumstances. And this is precisely the kind of government Hezbollah that has been calling for.

Everyone, it seems, has an interest in postponing elections, Hezbollah above all. With the situation in Syria having the potential to shift the party’s way thanks to its intervention in the area of Qusayr, the party prefers to wait and see if Bashar al-Assad regains the upper hand before allowing decisive elections. This would give it greater leverage to impose the election law it favors and shape the post-election climate. 

Everything today in Lebanon is about Syria. And until outcomes are more certain there, the Lebanese will float aimlessly, without an election, and possibly without a government.

No comments: