Commentary

The Mikati-government era: The face of transition in Lebanese politics

Mikati leaves the Presidential Palace in Baabda, Sept. 13, 2021. (The Daily Star/Mohamad Azakir)

The Algorithm in the government formation

Although the prolonged game of “horse trading” in the recent government formation was not uncommon in Lebanese politics, this time the players were using Najib Mikati’s Cabinet formation efforts as a means to adjust the country’s balance of power in the post-Aoun presidency era.

While during Tammam Salam’s government formation in 2014, which also took over a year, the parties were sectioning the Cabinet based on political sects, in this instance, over the combined Adib-Hariri-Mikati designation period, the Cabinet “pie” was sliced based on what each party’s back-up plan was for three main events: First, the negotiations with donors and the International Monetary Fund; second, the parliamentary/municipalities elections; and finally the presidential elections on Oct. 31, 2022.

This became quite clear after the president requested veto power from each of the three prime ministers-designate, and later asked to assume control of the Social Affairs Ministry, which will take charge of the primary social support of the citizens prior to decisive elections in May 2022.

Following the elections, Mikati might form another government which adheres to the current external and internal status-quo, and which will prepare the country politically for the new presidential term. But what happens prior to the presidential election might seem unclear for now; for example, will Hezbollah and Free Patriotic Movement boycott the elections as they did back in 2014-16?

The Taif Accord Era: Is it over?

Political parties and observers agree that the manner in which the Taif Accord is currently followed is a misuse of the agreement, all to serve the personal interests of the elite rather than achieve the goals sought at the time of its signing in 1990. A deep study of the accord, which ended the Civil War, can shed light on a lot of the reforms that were never applied as intended, with the “non-sectarian” electoral law being the main proof.

Why aren’t the stipulations of the Taif regulations working well? Why has the country spent nearly 40 percent of its time after 2005 in political vacuums? And why has it spent the remainder of that time in partial economic and political instability due to the neighboring troublemakers – Syria and Israel – as well as local complications such as the August 2019 Qabr Shmoun incident.

Lebanon’s new political regime

The only common ground among the country’s major players, including the president and the prime minister, since the signing of the Cabinet formation decree is the desire for the new government to address the Lebanon’s economic collapse. In the meantime, the Lebanese wait for a seat at the regional/international negotiations table, as they have been unable to send a sign of unity in regards to political and economic independence, instead constantly calling for foreign intervention in their local affairs, with the government formation being a clear result of revived French-Iranian contacts.

For the time being, logical speculations for the post-Aoun or Taif era might go as follows: First, a resumption of the political deadlock at each interval, whether its presidential elections, government formation or whatnot, meaning continuing the practice of “consensus democracy” that yielded current circumstances; second, adopting a “decentralized administrative governance” style of government with its expanded meaning, and third, the “three-way power distribution.”

“Consensus democracy” has been the only way so far to protect the rights and gains of segments of Lebanese society or their representative political parties, although it has led to conflicting agendas within the same government, such as the demand for the Selaata power plant by then-Energy and Water Minister Raymond Ghajar (backed up by the Free Patriotic Movement) during the Hassan Diab government’s presentation to Western donors in 2020 of Lebanon’s energy sector reformation plan by.

This is just one example among many of a lack of chemistry within the executive authority that was rarely formed in parliamentary majority with a clear opposing opposition.

“Administrative decentralization,” in its “modest” form, is an agreed-upon issue most of whose aspects have to be applied. However, the “expanded” version appears to be the “stick” used by some parties, primarily Christians, to threaten both their opponents and allies on the other side of the bank. Sami Gemayel, Gebran Bassil and Samir Geagea have in several speeches demanded the expanded form of the “Administrative Decentralization” regime that protects all remaining Christian political gains since the 1943 National Pact signed between then-President Bechara al-Khoury and then-Prime Minister Riad al-Solh.

In the current status-quo, Hezbollah – a major player in Lebanese politics and a main proxy of external forces – awaits signals from abroad to illustrate gains in the current regime, hence changing it.

And so comes the “three-way power distribution” that aims to divide the “pie” among Christians, Shiites and the Sunnis equally instead of the former 50-50 distribution between Christians and all Muslims. Rumor has it that this is the ultimate demand of Hezbollah, backed by the Shiite majority, to gain more seats in ruling the state and not restricting key positions to Maronites or Sunnis (in a lesser manner).

Upon Ambassador Mustapha Adib’s brief tenure as premier-designate in the summer of 2020, FPM leader Bassil clearly expressed his objection to once again granting the Shiite duo (the Amal Movement and Hezbollah) the Finance Ministry. Speaker Nabih Berri, head of the Amal Movement, fired back at the time when one of his MPs appearing on a TV show replied that “it is the Finance Ministry, or shall we speak about the governor of the Central Bank, the Army Commander or ... ” that are positions in the state that are mainly occupied by Maronites.

The upcoming elections might shift around certain powers among Lebanese factions and might even witness the rise of new, small powers backed by the 2019 demonstrations. However, all ruling parties view the event as an opportunity to cement their own positions within the big game of what is coming next.

Hence, the current practice of “consensus democracy” shall continue until the situation in the Middle East is resolved, at which point the reason for the presence of Hezbollah’s arsenal will vanish. At such a time, the re-distribution of political powers in local politics will afford the group a substitute for the strength of its arms.

 

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