A double dilemma in Lebanon: two postponed elections

الإنتاخابات النيابية اللبنانية 2009
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الإنتاخابات النيابية اللبنانية 2009

Since former head of state Michel Suleiman left office in late May, Lebanon has witnessed a nearly six month presidential vacuum.[1] Although a quorum was established during the first legislative session in April, no candidate received enough votes to win the required two-third majority. Fifteen other attempts after that were postponed due to a lack of quorum as the two main coalitions, March 14 and March 8, remained divided over a consensual candidate for presidency. What might sound as if it was a headline from a satire magazine, for the Lebanese is a frustrating reality.

The consequences of the presidential vacuum are numerous. Above all there are legitimate concerns about the stability of Lebanon and the capability of its political institutions to function properly. Furthermore, this vacuum has proven to cause paralysis in several aspects of institutional work, particularly at the level of the Cabinet, as well as contributed in the inability to perform long due elections. One case in point is that if the current Cabinet resigns for any reason, the absence of a president would mean that parliamentary consultations for nominating a new Prime Minister cannot be conducted. In addition to this, each of the current twenty four Ministers can single-handedly veto any Cabinet decision and thus put the country in limbo.  Had there been an elected President, the norm would have been to abide by a simple majority or a two-thirds majority depending on the issue at hand. Although the Parliament was not able to elect a new President, the majority of its members voted for the renewal of their term for four years. This took place recently in November 2014 when the parliamentary mandate was extended for the duration of two years and seven months and last year in 2013 when the term of the current Parliament was extended for one year and five months in the hope that a new electoral law would be agreed upon. Although civil society circles actively proposed a number of electoral laws, the Parliament performed little visible action in this regard, bringing both extensions to four years or the equivalent of a full parliamentary term.

To many Lebanese, this extension is frustrating, particularly because it means they could not practice their right to vote.[2] Many also argue that parliamentary elections were previously held under difficult circumstances such as the 2005 elections which took place shortly after the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Yet, most Lebanese are aware of the fact that any parliamentary elections that might be carried out at this stage will most probably not result in any palpable change given the sharp divisions between the two main rivalry factions , March 14 and March 8.

In an interview with the Minister of Interior Nouhad El Machnouk in Assafir newspaper, he expresses fears that Lebanon might witness over the coming year turmoil at an unprecedented level in the area. Whether this is an exaggeration or not, Mr Machnouk obviously aims at defending his position that the security situation cannot justify parliamentary elections at this stage. This may be an attempt on his part to annul the argument that the extension of the Parliament’s mandate has jeopardized the democratic system.

Although a large number of activists, youth associations and organizations were opposed to extending the Parliament’s term for a second time (leading a famous campaign in May of last year where the Civil Movement For Accountability (CMFA) threw tomatoes at the passing vehicles of lawmakers, in what was called the “Tomato Revolution”  and sending Members of Parliament tomato boxes with a sticker reading “No to extension,” this year),  the extension still took place with a staggering number of Members of Parliament who voted for it: ninety five members from various political inklings versus only two opposing votes. Thirty other members boycotted the session clearly expressing a position against any extension.

Other than citing the deteriorating security situation in the country, supporters of the extension of the Parliament’s mandate, mainly from the March 14 coalition, argue that the Change and Reform bloc’s opposition to this extension is merely aimed at gaining popularity among its constituents. Had Members of Parliament belonging to this bloc been serious about their stance, they would have resigned from Parliament as their opponents usually contend.  The fact that they refrained from doing so demonstrates their willingness to retain their current seats. Effectively, both proponents and opponents of extension will reap the benefits of renewing their mandate. Above all, they do not have to conduct expensive campaigns and risk losing the elections. To the citizens in the streets, their parliamentary representatives have secured their relatively high income for the foreseeable future, along with all the benefits which Members of Parliament enjoy.

Irrespective of the reasons behind the inability to elect a President or conduct general parliamentary elections, political leaders in Lebanon seem to be totally oblivious of the political and security perils that threaten the country’s very existence. Many Lebanese believe that their political leaders do have the ability, should they want to, to conduct presidential parliamentary elections, and not wait for outside powers to impose their will on them. It is unfortunate, however, that most politicians, due to their submission to these powers, prefer to give them the ultimate word in Lebanese affairs. If this common sentiment is true, both elections will most probably not take place any time soon.