Friday, July 3, 2015

Dumb and dumber - Christians should use Taif and forget the popularity poll

These days Lebanon’s Christian leaders seem engaged in a sustained contest to determine who can present the most idiotic political proposals. The latest gem came from Michel Aoun last May, when he called for a poll to be taken among Christians to establish who was the most popular Christian politician.

The purpose in going through with such a plan is to decide which of the politicians merits to be endorsed by Christians at large as their candidate to become president.

The Lebanese Forces, who in supporting the Orthodox proposal in 2011 displayed a similar tendency toward electoral cretinism, have gone along with this. So now, Christians, who daily lament their dwindling power and worry about their existence as a community in a Middle East changing in radical ways, have been embarked in a scheme with absolutely no constitutional validity, the results of which even many Christians care little about.

At the time of writing the details of the poll remained unclear. As The Daily Star reported, there is, as yet, no agreement over which company will conduct the poll, the size and geographical distribution of the sample or details about the questions that will be asked. Hopefully this vagueness is a sign of recognition that the whole endeavor is a splendid waste of time that should be abandoned at the first opportunity.

For Michel Aoun, who thinks he can win the poll, the introduction of a filter to conclude which presidential candidate Christians would like to put forward to the Muslim majority as theirs presents an interesting challenge. Going ahead with the poll means adopting a mechanism that Aoun can turn to his advantage, making him appear as someone rallying Christians around an initiative that gives a voice to the community.

On the other hand, those who oppose a poll must invariably offer an alternative method of defining popularity. The logical choice is representation in parliament. In that case Aoun, again, would benefit, given the large size of his parliamentary bloc.    

The disadvantages, however, cannot be dismissed. In the context of the post-Taif constitution, Aoun’s plan challenges the spirit of national coexistence. The reason is that the president, as the constitutional “symbol of the nation’s unity,” should not be a Christian choice first, only to be approved by the rest later on.

Maronites have complained that the constitution effectively grants the different Muslim communities veto power over presidential candidates, so that what invariably emerges is a weak compromise president with little communal appeal. Instead, they seek a “strong” president, while many consider Taif to be a contract that wrote Maronites politically out of Lebanon.

This attitude shows great poverty of imagination and an inability to face reality. For better or worse, Taif protected Christian representation when a worse agreement might have reflected demographic reality and handed Christians a smaller share than the 50-50 breakdown outlined in Taif.

Similarly, embodying national unity, particularly at a time of Sunni-Shiite discord, means that presidents have significant potential power if they can interpret their role creatively. It also means Christians can position themselves as a bridge between the divided Muslim communities, giving themselves a valuable national sense of purpose, but also long-term security in a region in which Christians are disappearing amid sectarian conflicts.

The poll idea suffers from other problems as well. Once the results come out, what is to be done with them? The Aounist parliamentarian Ibrahim Kanaan, admitting the outcome would not be binding, said that it would have a “moral effect.” But what does that mean? All the poll really presages is more dissonance, as the victor will play up the numbers to his advantage, the losers will play them down, and Christians will remain as split as ever.

Suleiman Franjieh took the Solomonic path by saying that whoever won, he would continue to support Aoun as president. Which makes one wonder why anyone is going through with the charade. Franjieh’s behavior will almost certainly be replicated by many other Christians. Aounists will never want Samir Geagea as president if he wins, nor will Geagea’s partisans embrace Aoun.

A subtext to this affair was raised by Walid Jumblatt this week. Wading into the murky waters of Christian insecurity, the Druze leader alluded to another idea recently raised in the Christian community, namely the establishment of a federal system in Lebanon. “It is impossible to have a federation,” Jumblatt said. “The Taef Accord is the only guarantee for Lebanon’s Christians.”

Jumblatt was both right and wrong. Indeed, Taif is the best guarantee for Christians, but in their recent joint document the Aounists and Lebanese Forces did not endorse a federation. Instead, in Paragraph 14 they referred back to Taif and used it as a reference to implement administrative decentralization.

Taif indeed outlines such decentralization, but the Aounists and Lebanese Forces added an idea not found in Taif, by also calling for financial decentralization. Taif refers only to a “unified and comprehensive development plan for the nation” that leads to the “development of the various Lebanese regions economically and socially.” Nowhere is financial decentralization mentioned.  

However, Christians are not wrong to push harder for implementation of Taif in the direction of administrative decentralization. This has long been a communal demand and it makes far more sense in developmental terms than the over-centralized, cumbersome administrative system in place today.

Taif provides a variety of means for Christians to enhance their influence in ways that correspond to the constitution. But for that to happen Christians have to put aside puerile projects that lead nowhere. Above all, Aoun should order his parliamentarians to parliament to vote for a president, in that way preserving the senior Maronite post in the state, whose future is uncertain.

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