Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Even an uncertain presidency binds Lebanon’s democracy

On Wednesday, Lebanon held the first round of its presidential election. No single candidate won the requisite majority of votes in parliament, which chooses the president, and a second round of voting has been scheduled for next week. The results show that only a consensual candidate can hope to emerge.

But why would anyone want to be Lebanon’s president? The Taif Accord of 1989 substantially transformed, and diminished, the president’s constitutional role. Though far from powerless, the president must shape policy in a more subtle ways today than before. He or she must seek power within the cracks of the political system.

By the unwritten rules governing Lebanon’s consociational power-sharing system, the main posts in the state are distributed between the country’s three main sects. The president is a Maronite Christian. The community retained the presidency as compensation for the shredding of its power. Yet the president remains the head of state and “symbol of the nation’s unity”.

Through the Taif amendments, the president, who had been the paramount official in the state, lost his executive power to the council of ministers as a collective body (as opposed to that power being handed to the prime minister). The president also was deprived of the right to name a preferred prime minister, having, instead, to rely on binding consultations with parliament.

The president cannot block legislation. He or she can delay it for up to a month; or, in consultation with the council of ministers, ask that a law be reconsidered once – which parliament must do, before passing the legislation with an absolute majority.

These constraints don’t tell the whole story. Because most policy in Lebanon is negotiated and requires compromise between sectarian leaders, the president’s function can transcend his or her constitutionally-mandated role. Moreover, there is room in the constitution, and in the customs of the state, allowing presidents to exploit and expand their prerogatives.

For instance, President Emile Lahoud emerged as a forceful, if ultimately mediocre, president in 1998, mainly because he had sustained Syrian backing. He was able to use the ambiguities in the constitution, as well as his networks within the armed forces, which he had earlier commanded, to curtail the actions of two of his prime ministers, Salim al-Hoss and Rafik Hariri.

But when all is said and done, the power of the president is, above all, moral. As the embodiment of the nation’s unity, he or she can issue statements that can have a major bearing on the political actors, under the pretence of defending the state.

This was particularly true of the outgoing president, Michel Sleiman. On several occasions Mr Sleiman made statements critical of Hizbollah and its independent military arsenal. The party was angered by his remarks, one reason why it has been so insistent that the president leave office when his term ends, unlike his two predecessors whose mandates were extended.

While Mr Sleiman’s statements had little practical impact, they shifted the public debate over Hizbollah’s relationship with the state in important ways. That is why the party, while it cannot impose a president of its own on the country, is very keen to block any candidate who might threaten its agenda and arms.

With the president, the two other main officials in the state are the prime minister, from the Sunni community, and the speaker of parliament, a Shiite. Given that a most Sunnis are hostile to Hizbollah, and that the prime minister must take this mood into consideration to preserve his or her legitimacy, Hizbollah seeks to avoid a situation where the president and prime minister can coordinate their positions in opposition to the party.

Regionally and internationally, the presidential election may not rate highly, but it does have some meaning, particularly today with the conflict in Syria raging. Arab and western governments want an election so there is no vacuum in Lebanon, which could lead to unwanted instability and a new regional headache.

The fact that a government of national unity was formed in February reflected an effort by Saudi Arabia and Iran, the regional sponsors of the Future Movement and Hizbollah, Lebanon’s main Sunni and Shia parties, to contain sectarian tensions in the country. A presidential vacuum may impair this effort, but the government’s broad representation prepared for the possibility that no one would be elected, in which case the government would run the country alone.

One of the advantages, if it can be called that, of the president’s diminished powers is that a presidential vacuum is less catastrophic than many believe. When Mr Lahoud’s term ended in late 2007, there was no agreement over a successor. It was not until May 2008 that Mr Sleiman was elected. While that period was marked by high tension, the cause was not the absence of a president and it was ultimately brought under control.

That is why even if the divided political alignments cannot agree to a successor to Mr Sleiman, we should not necessarily assume the worst. More worrisome is the absence of a government, and Lebanon in the past year managed to carry on with relative steadiness through a 10-month period with a caretaker government.

It is easy to dismiss Lebanon’s presidential election as relatively meaningless on the global stage. Perhaps it is, but in a region where elections are mostly a sham designed to keep dictators in power, it is also an exception. The Lebanese may not know who will be their next president or whether they will have one soon, but somehow that uncertainty is a refreshing rarity in the Middle East.

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