Legislating for their own necessity

On Nov. 13 and 14, Lebanon’s Parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, convened parliamentarians to “legislate by necessity.” Parliament had not met for one year and, constitutionally, it does not have the authority to legislate until it elects a president of the republic, a post that has been vacant since May 2014. Having failed to agree on a candidate, Berri felt it was nevertheless necessary for the legislative assembly to pass laws to address the country’s pressing challenges. All political parties heeded the speaker’s call and converged on Parliament to “save the republic.” Kataeb Party members reminded everyone present that the session was unconstitutional and walked out, while other parliamentarians paid lip service to the Constitution and the presidency but then moved on to business as usual.

Putting aside constitutional and legal violations for a moment, what was so vital that it brought the country’s political parties under one roof to suddenly legislate 38 laws in two days? Looking carefully at the main laws, one could connect the dots. They were meant to save the banking sector from international sanctions by ensuring that Lebanon adhered to new conditions addressing money laundering, funding terrorism, trans-border cash movements and cooperation to combat tax-evasion laws. According to the Central Bank governor, Riad Salameh, who requested holding the parliamentary session, these laws “preserved Lebanon’s financial status.” Considering that many of these banks have political figures serving on or controlling their board, one could not miss the fact that this benefited some, if not many, people in power.

In all frankness, this was not only about the banking sector. The session also approved 14 laws that injected $1.26 billion, of which $1 billion is in loans, into public investment projects – affecting water, housing, waste management, highways, energy, electricity and pollution, among others – to be funded by the World Bank, the European Investment Bank and the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development.

On the surface, this was indeed a welcome effort to boost investments in a dilapidated infrastructure. However, Lebanon’s record in efficiently and effectively using such resources is very poor. That is because, often, such projects are procured by the political elite and their cronies in their areas of influence. Hence, as much as these projects are intended to be for the public good, they could very well turn out to be private goods for the political elite. After all, the political class has been short on cash lately and would welcome an injection of capital into the economy for its own use.

Now that economic and political elites have claimed their share of the cake, they need to keep the state and what is left of its institutions afloat. The Parliament approved a law that gives the Army $900 million worth of material and passed two laws allowing the government to spend an additional $3 billion for the “needs of the public sector,” in addition to $600 million for public-sector employees.

Add to this another law that permits the government to borrow up to $3 billion in foreign currency to restructure Lebanon’s public debt. These are not insignificant sums of money that the Parliament is approving. Furthermore, they violate budgetary laws and undermine any sense of transparency. Yet, they remind us of how unwilling the Parliament is to hold the executive accountable. Instead of approving these laws, the Parliament should have been calling on the executive to submit a budget that was last seen in 2005.

Finally, none of the above would have become laws had it not been for the nationality law, the passage of which was a precondition by Christian parties to take part in this circus of legislating by necessity. With their dwindling numbers at electoral booths, Christian parties thought it best to boost their presence in the next election by appealing to “non-Lebanese” of Lebanese origin.

Seen from the perspective of the elite, these laws are in fact necessary and complementary. They preserve the wealth of the elite by adhering to international obligations and inject capital into the political system to provide public goods that also spillover into private interests. To ensure that the state remains functioning, they have seen to the army and public sector being paid their salaries and provided with equipment. On top of that, Christian parties got the chance to boost their numbers in the next election through the nationality law.

What is equally telling are draft laws that were not even on the table. For instance, parliamentarians do not seem to be bothered that Lebanon has had no budget since 2005, which has effectively undermined the country’s public finances. The electoral law, which is key to ensuring better political representation, is buried in some committee. Women’s rights seem irrelevant to politicians as they have preferred to preserve patriarchal rule through a nationality law rather than passing a fair and just citizenship law. As for public school teachers, salary adjustments have been shelved. This is all against a background of declining public services ranging from garbage collection to the provision of water and electricity.

The Parliament has once again reinforced the notion that it serves the interests of the few and ignores the priorities of the majority. It adheres to international obligations but ignores its local constituencies. It bargains with the government over public finances in a bazaar-like fashion rather than forcing it to submit a budget. It gives rights to “foreigners” over Lebanese women. This Parliament is not only constitutionally but also morally illegitimate. It has failed to address people’s needs, aspirations and priorities. It is shameful that its members could be re-elected.

Sami Atallah is executive director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies in Beirut. This commentary is published in collaboration with the LCPS.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 29, 2015, on page 7.




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