Commentary

What decentralization law do parties really want?

Recent demonstrations and calls for political reform in Lebanon have stemmed from and focused on the government’s inability to address a national waste-management crisis. One key demand of demonstrators is that local municipalities be given greater control over waste management and how money is spent collecting and processing waste.

Such calls beg a broader question: What kind of decentralization law would Lebanese political parties really want? According to recent findings by the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, Lebanese MPs would favor a more restricted role for regional councils, sectarian quotas for elected officials, and an electorate comprising the registered population under a new decentralization law. Following the release of the decentralization draft law in April 2014 by a committee that was established by former Prime Minister Najib Mikati in November 2012 and led by former Interior Minister Ziad Baroud, LCPS interviewed 120 opinion leaders to hear their thoughts on decentralization in general and on various elements of the decentralization draft law.

Among those interviewed were MPs on the National Defense, Interior and Municipalities Parliamentary Committee, lawmakers on the Administration and Justice Parliamentary Committee, senior political party members, mayors, religious leaders, experts and members of civil society organizations. They were asked about different facets of the law which fundamentally transformed qadas into elected councils endowed with the mandate to provide a wide range of services, as well as the fiscal resources to do so. The survey, which was largely closed ended, focused on five key areas: the respondents’ understanding of decentralization, elections, the prerogatives and financing of the qada councils, and the financial transfer system.

Using this survey we have been able to get a clearer picture of what MPs think of decentralization. Although more than 90 percent of them support decentralization, this high level of support masks serious issues. In brief, they seem to prefer a more confined role for the qada councils, favor sectarian quotas and prefer that they are elected by the registered rather than resident population. It appears then that their position highlights their desire to not only keep sectarian quotas intact but in fact to prevent political reforms.

For instance, a key pillar of decentralization is giving elected councils wide prerogatives and fiscal means that they would otherwise not have. Although more than 88 percent of politicians and senior party members think that elections and financing are key elements of decentralization, their support for wide prerogatives for councils drops to 60 percent. This contrasts sharply with the 96 percent of other respondents who think that prerogatives are key to decentralization.

Furthermore, only 34 percent of politicians and senior party members think that qada councils should have wide prerogatives and the authority to collect taxes compared to 58 percent of others surveyed. In fact, party leaders and politicians (63 percent) prefer that the qada councils’ responsibilities be confined to a coordinating role among municipalities.

In addition, the political elite appears to be in favor of entrenching sectarianism in qada councils. When asked whether they support sectarian distribution in qada council seats, 69 percent of politicians and senior party members said they are in favor of such a measure compared to only 28 percent of others. Political parties appear to have no appetite for serious reform as they seem eager to replicate the parliamentary experience by having the registered rather than resident population elect their representatives. In fact, 40 percent of party leaders and politicians compared to only 26 percent of others surveyed want the election to be based on the registered population. A key part of financing the qada is through an intergovernmental fund. Based on best practices, this fund should establish clear criteria for distribution to prevent favoritism. When asked about the criteria of distributing the fund, 40 percent of politicians and senior party members preferred it be done on an ad hoc basis compared to 19 percent of other respondents.

Sami Atallah is executive director at the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies in Beirut. Michele Boujikian is a researcher at the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies in Beirut. They wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 13, 2015, on page 7.

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