Lebanon's parliamentary reboot puts rivals on the same side
Author: Sami Nader Posted November 11, 2014
Less than a week after the Oct. 26 Tunisian elections, which ignited hopes of the possibility of achieving democracy in the Arab world, the postponement of Lebanese elections emerged as a first democratic relapse. On Nov. 5, the parliament extended its own term, putting an end to the imminent democratic elections that were scheduled for Nov. 20, postponing them for two years and seven months. Ironically, the decision was passed under the umbrella of a law titled “the extension law,” which, in itself, constitutes a contradiction and violation of constitutional rules and democratic mechanisms.
It is not the first time this parliament has extended its term; it was previously done on May 31, 2013, under the pretext of not reaching consensus on the electoral law. At the time, elections were postponed for 17 months.
Unfortunately, this has become a rule. The first extension set a precedent and for the same reason: a lack of consensus and the failure to abide by institutional mechanisms and rules to settle internal conflicts. The excuse for the first extension was a failure to come to an agreement over an electoral law that would tackle the dysfunction at the level of Christian representation. The excuse used for the second extension, as proposed by the March 14 coalition, was the impossibility of holding elections amid a presidential vacuum. The latter was the result of the March 8 camp's boycotting the presidential election sessions on April 30; May 7, 15 and 22; June 9 and 18; July 2 and 23; Sept. 2 and 23; Oct. 9; and again Oct. 29. As such, the boycott by one party was countered by an extension request from the other.
The surprise came when the extension deal was sealed between the two main Muslim actors — the Future Movement, the main representative of Sunnis, and Hezbollah, the main representative of Shiites — despite the wide rift between them and the fierce Sunni-Shiite conflict that extends from Iraq to Lebanon. The question to be raised is, what drove Hezbollah to move forward with the extension despite the refusal of its Christian ally Michel Aoun? Is it a mere temporary convergence imposed by necessity, or is it an introduction to a bigger agreement on the regional scene, which some fear will be struck at the expense of Christians?
The March 14 camp has supported extension out of a belief that it is the lesser of two evils, with the alternative being a political vacuum that could lead to the collapse of the system. A leading member of the Future Movement, who requested anonymity, told Al-Monitor, “Who can guarantee that elections can be held amid lax security? Who can guarantee the integrity of elections when illegal arms are spread across the Lebanese territory? Let us suppose that elections are held as the other camp is requesting and presidency position is vacant. Who will perform parliamentary consultations to form the government?”
“The Future Movement is swallowing the bitter pill of extension because it fears that there is a hidden plan that aims to lead the country toward a vacuum and put an end to the Taif Agreement,” the Future Movement member said.
Taif was the agreement that ended 2½ decades of war and redistributed power among the different sectarian groups. It has always been considered by Sunnis as a gain, especially as it reinforced the role of the prime minister, a position reserved for Sunnis. Lately, however, some, including Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah in June 2012, have been calling for a constituent assembly that would redistribute power according to the current local balance of power, in which Shiites represented by Hezbollah have been the strongest. That call was rejected; the latest stance opposing it was that of Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Rai during his visit to Australia.
Al-Monitor asked a political observer, who requested anonymity, concerned with the stances of Hezbollah about the party’s sudden convergence with its political rival despite still being the strongest actor, on the military level at least. “The first consideration for Hezbollah when approving an extension may have been related to security,” he said. The Lebanese scene is now exposed and Syrians are infiltrating in on a daily basis, targeting Hezbollah’s military posts and harming its welcoming environments. The last series of explosions that targeted Beirut's southern suburbs, a Hezbollah stronghold, is a stark example of this.
The source said, “Any elections can add to the exposure of the Lebanese scene, especially in terms of its Shiite component. Elections mean gatherings, festivals and movements. How can it provide protection amid such a situation, especially given that a large part of its capacities is invested in the Syrian battle?”
He added, “The second reason is political. This time is not good for risk-taking but for the preservation of capacities and gains. What if elections led to Hezbollah losing some of its positions of power, such as the speaker of parliament post?” In fact, Nabih Berri, Hezbollah’s ally, assumed the position of speaker of parliament as a result to an agreement concluded with the March 14 camp, an agreement that may not be repeated in the future. This position constitutes significant leverage for Hezbollah’s role on the Lebanese scene.
To sum up, both Hezbollah and the Future Movement relied on meticulous calculations, which led them to go beyond democratic rules and institutional mechanisms to push away elections that might reshuffle the cards. The time is not good for gambling. This period calls for caution and anticipation until the dust settles in Syria or an Iranian-Saudi agreement is reached.
Read More: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/11/lebanon-parliament-extension-opposition-converge.html
Sami Nader is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Lebanon Pulse, an economist, Middle Eastern affairs analyst and communications expert with extensive expertise in corporate strategy and risk management. He currently directs the Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs, focusing on the economics and geopolitics of the Levant, and is a professor for USJ University in Beirut. On Twitter: @saminader