BAABDA, Lebanon: President Michel Sleiman officially launched a draft bill for administrative decentralization Wednesday, arguing that the new legislation would promote national unity in Lebanon as well as transparency and accountability.
Called for in the 1989 Taif Accord that ended the Civil War, the legal reforms aim to redistribute the authority, responsibility and financial resources needed to provide public services among a wider variety of levels of government.
“Administrative decentralization provides balanced development and strengthens national unity and diversity in Lebanon without obstructing federalism or any kind of partition,” Sleiman said to a large gathering of ministers and ambassadors at Baabda Palace.
He also said the bill provided “transparency, accountability and monitoring, bringing the citizen closer to holding accountable those he has elected,” describing it as of equal importance to the electoral law and the budget law, since it affects both.
He expressed hope that the law would be passed by the Cabinet before the end of its term.
When Sleiman was elected in 2008, he vowed to bring in the decentralization law during his tenure, making it a key part of his election platform.
The bill, prepared by a committee headed by former Interior Minister Ziad Baroud, contains 147 items and prioritizes the powers and rights of the municipalities, particularly with respect to financial autonomy.
The aim is to create an elected council in each of the country’s 25 qadas with wide-ranging financial and administrative powers. This would comprise a popularly elected general committee, whose number of members would be based on the qada’s population up to a maximum of six, and a 12-person board of directors chosen by the general committee. A specialized independent body would organize the councils as well as oversee the elections.
As long as they fulfill certain criteria, any individual aged 21 or over would be able to run for council, a significantly lower minimum age than for national elections, which require potential candidates to be at least 25.
The board of director’s main role would be to take care of the yearly budget and development plans for the qada. The general committee’s purpose would be to oversee the board of directors, but the latter would retain executive power concerning all public matters.
Citizens would be able to oversee the work of the council and would have the power to file objections to its plans and projects.
The plan would also involve removing the current qaimaqam position, transferring his powers to the council, and would replace the independent municipality fund with a decentralized fund.
In the capital, a special Beirut council would be formed with a general committee of 72 members and a 12-person board of directors.
The bill also calls for the voting age to be lowered from 21 to 18, which would require altering Article 21 of the Constitution.
The legislation is intended to make sure all state departments are represented within the country’s qadas in order to ease citizens’ administrative paperwork and better address their needs.
The decentralization bill will not, however, abolish the central government and its commitments toward qadas regarding infrastructure, education, health and transportation.
According to Sleiman, the bill would improve citizens’ participation in democracy, which he said was not currently being practiced properly. It would also allow youths to participate at a deeper level than just the general elections and would allow for the greater involvement of women in the decision-making process, something he said was lacking within both Parliament and the Cabinet.
“Partnership between the private and public sectors is important, and it [the bill] promotes employment opportunities for the youth, which curbs migration and brain drain and reinforces the economy,” Sleiman said. “Villages will regain their sons scattered abroad.”
He also noted the importance of security, which he said would be bolstered by the decentralization law by the creation of a qada police force with its own training center.
“This is a serious project and this police [force] will have the capacity of law enforcement officers, and this will greatly help in maintaining security,” the president said.
Sleiman also voiced hope that future oil revenues would play a role in promoting the decentralization fund, the goal of which is to fund and develop qadas and municipalities.
“Let us make the electoral occasions ones of joy for the Lebanese and continue the application of the Taif Accord through the creation of a senate and develop a parliamentary law, and abolish political sectarianism with the will of all Lebanese,” he said.
At the palace, Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk lauded the bill, which he said “ensured commitment to the Constitution and the Taif Accord” and was “a standard of criteria for evaluating the modern state and society.”