Lebanon Pulse

Will Lebanon have to start from scratch to form new government?

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Article Summary
As the governmental vacuum persists and Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam fails to reach a consensus among rival parties, it seems likely that the cabinet formation process may start over.

Regardless of any new developments that may occur in the next few hours, it remains probable that the process of forming a new Lebanese cabinet will revert back to the starting point from which it began nearly 10 months ago. In fact, it might even go further back as a result of the intransigent and seemingly uncompromising positions expressed by both parties to the dispute: Beirut member of parliament and Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam versus the largest Christian bloc in parliament, represented by Gen. Michel Aoun. While the former insists on imposing portfolios and the names of ministers on all parties wishing to participate in his coalition government, Aoun considers that such behavior falls contrary to the traditionally required consensual lineup and is an exclusion of Christian representation.

The parliamentary faction to which Salam belongs, namely former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s bloc, lacks the parliamentary majority needed to grant the government the constitutionally required vote of confidence. Furthermore, Aoun’s allies have affirmed their solidarity with his stance through their rejection of Salam’s imposition of a cabinet without taking into account the opinions of participants in his coalition government. As a result of these circumstances, Beirut now faces three prospects:

First is the possibility that Salam will submit to the president a nonconsensual cabinet structure, which would be followed by official decrees announcing the formation of the government. Such an eventuality would likely lead to the immediate resignation of Aoun’s ministers as well as some Shiite and Druze ministers. As a result, the number of ministers who resigned would likely constitute more than a third of the cabinet, leading, per the Lebanese constitution, to the whole government being considered as de facto resigned.

In this case, Salam’s new government would become a caretaker government that lacks procedural powers. Subsequently, the president would have to hold immediate new parliamentary consultations that would lead to the naming of a new prime minister-designate. In essence, the clock would be turned back to the moment when current Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s cabinet resigned on March 22, 2013. The outcomes of such an eventuality are uncertain, in as far as who might be named by the majority of parliamentarians to form a government. Moreover, there are questions about whether that nominee would be able to form a government this time around, or fall prey to the same futile quandary that Salam bogged himself down in for 10 long months.

The second prospect is that Salam would realize the impossibility of him imposing his choices since he lacks the parliamentary majority needed to do so. He would thus announce that he was stepping down from the task of forming a cabinet — a move considered to be the only avenue leading to the search for a new prime minister-designate. The Lebanese constitution does not specify a time frame for the prime minister-designate to form a cabinet, nor does it specify any way to strip him of this responsibility, except for him to personally step down. Theoretically and constitutionally, it is even possible for the prime minister-designate to fail to propose a new cabinet lineup for a whole parliamentary or presidential term, with parliament and the president powerless to strip him of his mandate. This is one of the fundamental loopholes in Lebanon’s patchwork constitution, which came about in 1989 as a result of the Taif Accords signed in Saudi Arabia. In any case, Salam stepping down now would effectively mean a return to 10 months ago.

The third possibility would see Salam not submitting a cabinet formation to the president, and not stepping down from the task of forming a government. In other words, Salam would still believe that he is capable of making a breakthrough amid all the opposing positions, and deem that more time is required for him to succeed in this task that has lingered unfulfilled for almost 10 months.

These three possibilities clearly reflect the presence of many crises on the Lebanese political scene. Behind this seemingly impossible task lies, of course, the Lebanese construct predicated on the division of power along religious lines. This construct was adopted in 1989, on the basis that Christians had lost the military conflict at that time, and that their opponents had won, domestically and regionally. This balance seems to have changed today, following the withdrawal of the Syrian army from Lebanon in 2005 and Lebanese political forces regaining their internal dynamics. This has led to the old construct engendering hurdles that no one has been able to overcome.

These factors also point to a structural flaw in the country’s constitutional system as a whole. This system, aside from its imperfect consensual nature, has been proven by past experiences to be full of loopholes. The latter prevent the proper functioning of the state when faced with sovereignty affecting situations, in the absence of a foreign caretaker entity that would impose its will, and therefore, its own interpretation of the constitution upon the Lebanese.

In conclusion, we must also not forget that Lebanon’s crisis is greatly affected by the balance of external powers — to the point where the questions raised in Beirut today about the continuing governmental impasse are more akin to a mathematical formula that reads: In this situation, what is the proportional responsibility of all Lebanese in view of the multiplicity of their different sects? And what is the effect of the country’s lax constitutional texts, the complex regional events and Geneva II’s ineffectiveness? The answer to these questions seems complicated, just as complicated as Lebanon’s governmental situation and the country’s situation as a whole.

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Found in: tammam salam, parliament, najib mikati, lebanon crisis, lebanon, lebanese politics, government formation

Jean Aziz is a columnist at the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar, a contributor for Al-Monitor's Lebanon Pulse and the host of a weekly political talk show on OTV, a Lebanese television station. He teaches communications at the American University of Technology and the Université Saint-Esprit De Kaslik in Lebanon. On Twitter: @JeanAziz1

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