Focus on Parliament Term Extension Diverts Attention from Deeper Structural Problems
The Lebanese Parliament, which has failed to elect a president for almost six months but has managed to extend its own mandate for the second time in fifteen months, has once again shown its disregard for constitutional deadlines. The logistical and security justifications offered for not holding the elections are absurd. It is more likely that the dominant political parties are either too busy to run an electoral campaign or too worried about the outcome of the results. But that’s exactly what elections are about: Determining the winner after votes are cast and not before.
Unfortunately, parliamentary elections in Lebanon have been engineered in such a way that the outcome in most districts is known beforehand through various means: Customizing the electoral law every four years to ensure that those who crafted it are reelected, capitalizing on clientelism and vote buying, and resorting to sectarian discourse that mobilizes constituencies based on fear of others sects, particularly in homogenous districts. It is by using these tools that politicians have managed to get themselves reelected every four years.
With such a system in place, politicians have no incentive to set national policies that serve the wider public. In fact, they have mastered the system to get the most for themselves and very little for their constituencies. Out of two hundred laws that the parliament has passed since 2010, many are confined to administrative issues, international agreements with donors or countries, or treasury advances. Consequently, there is very little policy debate on social issues that concern citizens.
They have buried important issues—such as access to information and salary adjustment—in committees. And when they do legislate, in some cases, they have relied little on data and information, as was the case when the rental law was passed. Efforts to show that they are taking action in the public interest, such as providing monetary transfers or emergency support to flooded areas, are in reality an attempt to offer minimal assistance to silence the public. Not only has the parliament not legislated enough and enacted policies in the interest of the people, but they do not seem interested in holding the government accountable. The country has had no national budget since 2005 but legislators do not seem to be concerned about how public money is being managed.
Unfortunately, the political disarray is not confined to the legislative branch. Executive authority, which is entrusted to the Council of Ministers (COM), is so diffused that the COM is unable to govern effectively. The problem finds its roots in the adoption of the Taef agreement, when there was concern about ensuring sectarian representation in the executive decision-making process. However, this only became apparent once the Syrians, who were managing the Lebanese political system, left the country in 2005.
It is through these two institutions—legislative and executive—that the political elite have managed to control the country. The work of these institutions has alternated between paralysis and stalemate when the main parties disagreed, and collusion at the expense of citizens when they agreed. In fact, under their patronage, the beneficiaries of this system have managed to concentrate wealth into the hands of the few. According to a recent survey, 9,000 people, or a mere 0.3% of the population, controls 52% of the Lebanon’s wealth. In other words, 99.7% of citizens share the remaining 48%. Moreover, the share of wages to GDP has been squeezed to about 35%, which increases income inequality. Despite the predominant sectarian rhetoric, these institutions that are veiled with sectarian quotas seem to work effectively when it comes to their shared economic interests.
To put things in perspective, holding parliamentary elections now would have no bearing on citizens’ welfare. It would primarily serve to project a semblance of normalcy where none exists. This does not mean that elections should not be held; on the contrary, Lebanon needs to hold meaningful elections where the outcomes are not predetermined and votes are counted through a proportional representation system that allows new parties to join the policy-making process. We need a parliament that prioritizes national policies and is not in the business of buying political loyalty through clientelism. We need a strong and effective judiciary that protects individuals’ rights so they will not remain captive to the services provided by political leaders, so they become citizens and not clients. We need institutions that narrow the socio-economic divide between the haves and the have nots, since sectarianism only serves to obscure the elite’s real economic and financial interests. We need fundamentally new and democratic political parties that hold the government accountable and serious labor unions that are organized and serve the interest of workers.
It is through real competition and debate on public issues that policies can be formulated which serve citizens. The extension of the parliament mandate pushes Lebanon one step further away from reform, while also exposing the bankruptcy and paralysis of our political system.