Lebanon's government paralysis: Time to amend the Constitution?

So long as Lebanon maintains its parliamentary political system, reconciling the various demands of different political groups - impossible as that might seem - remains unavoidable.
by Bassem Ajami

16 August 2018 | 12:41

Source: by Annahar

  • by Bassem Ajami
  • Source: Annahar
  • Last update: 16 August 2018 | 12:41

This undated picture shows President Michel Aoun (center) standing next to Speaker Nabih Beri (left) and Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri (right) ( Annahar Photo)

The confusion surrounding the formation of a new government demands innovative thinking if it is to be resolved.

It is evident that forming a government entails overcoming two main obstacles. The first is reconciling the conflicting demands of various political groups. The second is meeting the demands of the president whose signature is needed to form a new government; giving him in effect the power to veto any cabinet proposal.

It was in anticipation of such difficulties that the constitution gave the designated prime minister an unlimited period to form his government.

Today, there are demands to limit the time allowed to the prime minister-designate. And in the wake of previous experiences, such demands seem logical. Yet if such a proposal is to be taken seriously, it must be preceded by removing one of the two hurdles that confront the formation of governments. 

So long as Lebanon maintains its parliamentary political system, reconciling the various demands of different political groups - impossible as that might seem - remains unavoidable. It is vital not only to the democratic process but also to bring together the diverse religious factions in the country. 

Moreover, the constitution does not give the president the prerogative to have a "share" in the cabinet. Yet that has been the practice since 2005. It was based on the fact that since then, successive presidents did not have a political base in parliament, and thus each was "given" the right to appoint three cabinet members.

President Michel Aoun now insists that such practice has become an established precedent and, as such, it is constitutionally binding. But according to jurists, a precedent only becomes binding if it is practiced repeatedly with universal approval.

In this case, the "share" of the president in a cabinet has always been met with resistance. Its most vocal opponent was President Aoun himself; he is on record as having voiced his objection in 2009, describing such a "presidential share" as unconstitutional.

A solution might lie in a double-edged constitutional `amendment. The proposed amendment would, on the one hand, limit the period allowed to the designated prime minister to form his government, and on the other hand, abolish the veto power that the president now has over the shape and form of the government.

The designated prime minister would have a limited period of time to take his proposed cabinet directly to parliament seeking a vote of confidence. 

If the proposed government fails to win such a vote, the president would dissolve parliament and call for general elections. 

Of course, such a proposal would immediately provoke the argument that it limits the powers of the president. That is true. But it also diminishes the powers of the prime minister-designate, while restoring the president's prerogative to dissolve parliament.

This is a more meaningful prerogative than having a "share" in the cabinet. 

Still, the practice of viewing the president as a "referee" among the various political players in the country is unrealistic and absurd. He should be viewed as an active political player like all others with the right to have his own parliamentary block, with representation in the cabinet according to its weight.

This is how it is with the speaker and with the prime minister. Why should it be different with the president?

Mr. Ajami is a freelance researcher, writer, and contributor to The Arab Weekly, London. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Annahar.



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