BEIRUT: Maronite parties could step up their sectarian rhetoric this week if the government fails during Tuesday’s session to agree on a legal mechanism to exercise the president’s prerogatives, parliamentary sources said Sunday.
The sources told The Daily Star that it is in the interest of everyone that the raging debate over the Cabinet’s executive powers during the presidential void be settled.
Most legal opinions back Prime Minister Tammam Salam’s viewpoint, which reportedly was based on a legal opinion by the legislation and consultancy body in the Justice Ministry, the sources said. In Salam’s view, the Cabinet’s powers in the case of a vacant presidency are clear.
Salam is adamant that these powers be practiced by the premier, especially with regard to calling the Cabinet into session and preparing its agenda.
This matter was debated during the Cabinet’s first session last Friday in light of the end of former President Michel Sleiman’s six-year term on May 25, and it was agreed that Salam would send the agenda to the ministers 72 hours ahead of the scheduled session.
This advanced notice would be tantamount to consultation that usually takes place between the president and the prime minister over this subject.
With regard the signing of Cabinet decrees and whether this needs the approval of all the ministers, a former judge who had served as the chief of the Justice Institute said that the Constitution clearly states that executive power should not be crippled.
“Why wouldn’t the formula applied by the government of [former] Prime Minister Fouad Siniora be adopted in the voting process and in exercising the president’s prerogatives?”
the judge said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “[Cabinet] decisions that need two thirds [of the Cabinet members] can be voted on this basis, while decisions that need an absolute majority can use the absolute majority basis,” he added.
According to the judge, once the Cabinet has taken decisions in this legal manner, and despite reservations by some ministers on any decision, the ministers are obligated to sign the decrees.
This is what happened when the Siniora government exercised the president’s powers.
A judge in the State Shura Council, who asked to not be identified, said that the signature of decrees by all ministers is unrealistic.
“While the president does not have the right to disrupt the Cabinet’s constitutional and legal decisions, how can we give such a right to a minister to disrupt the Cabinet’s work by refusing to sign decrees with or without any excuse?” the judge said.
One MP said that should the debate over exercising the president’s prerogatives take a negative political turn and morph into inter-Maronite one-upmanship, “this matter would undoubtedly lead to paralyzing the Cabinet institution like what is happening now with the Parliament institution.”
“But if matters during Tuesday’s Cabinet session take a turn based on a political consensus, which is essential to resolve all issues, the Salam Cabinet would have passed a [political] minefield under the slogan of law and the National Pact,” the lawmaker said.
A judicial source also weighed in on the issue that stirred a debate between Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk and Telecommunications Minister Boutros Harb during Friday’s Cabinet session.
The two ministers exchanged sharp words over whether Salam has right to call the Higher Defense Council to meet.
“The prime minister is certainly the vice president of the Higher Defense Council according to the first clause in Article 64 in the Constitution, which states that the prime minister is definitely the vice president of the Higher Defense Council.
Therefore, the council can convene upon his call,” the judicial source said.
“But any comprehensive security decision that seeks to charge the Army with missions beyond the mission previously assigned to it needs a Cabinet decision according to Article 65 in the Constitution, which puts the armed forces under the Cabinet,” the source added.