STRIKING A BALANCE

Lebanon 2012 | DIPLOMACY | REVIEW: DIPLOMACY & POLITICS

Politics in Lebanon is anything but dull, though all sides are looking to forge consensus on maintaining stability and moving forward on economic development.


Lebanon's ever-shifting political landscape is a source of bewilderment for many, though generates intense interest from much of the world community. As a parliamentary republic, Lebanon has managed to maintain its democratic traditions during even the most trying of times. The confessional system employed in Lebanon, seeking to balance power between the various religious groups in the country, dates back to an unwritten “National Pact" agreed between Bechare el-Khuri, representing the Christian community, and Riad al-Solh, who represented the Muslim community, at the dawn of Lebanon's independence in 1943. The allocation of political positions between the various religious denominations has continued ever since, with the Ta'if Agreement of 1989, which was a precursor to the end of the Lebanese Civil War that lasted from 1975 to 1990, modifying the balance between the Christian and Muslim communities from 6:5 to an equal basis in terms of parliamentary representation.

The president of the republic, who is elected by parliament for a non-renewable six-year term, is by convention a member of the Maronite community. The incumbent President, Michel Sleiman, was elected to office in 2008, and previously served as Commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces. The prime ministerial office has traditionally been held by a member of the Sunni community, and is appointed by the president on the recommendation of parliament. The prime minister does not need to be a member of parliament to hold office, though requires a vote of confidence from it to form a government. The current Prime Minister, Najib A. Mikati, came to office in June 2011. The speaker of parliament, long considered the third most powerful position in Lebanese political life, is occupied by a member of the Shia community. The current Speaker is Nabih Berri, who has been in office since 1992 and is one of the more long-lasting members of Lebanon's parliamentary landscape.

The prime minister heads up a cabinet of ministers whose membership often follows the delicate confessional balance sought at all levels of political life. Ministers do not have to be members of parliament, and the appointment of technocrats is a common occurrence. The cabinet is formed by the prime minister in consultation with parliament and following the assent of the president.

A HOUSE OF MANY COLORS

Although the prime minister and cabinet are the focus of Lebanon's political direction, much of the deal making happens in parliament, which functions as the premier legislative body. Members of parliament are elected via multi-member constituencies, whose candidates are generally determined according to the agreed denominational make up of an area. As universal suffrage is applied, members often have to appeal to other denominational communities to receive enough votes for victory.

Under the Ta'if Agreement, the Lebanese Parliament, also known as the National Assembly, has 128 members, of whom 64 are from the Muslim community and 64 from the Christian. Elections for parliament were first held in 1932 when Lebanon was a French protectorate, and were only suspended during the Civil War period. Notably, it was the surviving members of the 1972 parliament who signed off on the Ta'if Agreement, which ushered in the end of the Civil War and saw fresh parliamentary elections held in 1992.

Lebanon's political party landscape is as rich as its multi-confessional make up, with at least 100 parties officially registered representing all shades of the political spectrum. The last elections for parliament were held in 2009, and members representing at least 22 political parties were elected to parliament from 26 multi-member electorates. Despite the bewildering array of parties, by and large four major party blocs have emerged. The Mikati-led government receives the support of three of these blocs, giving it a majority of 68 seats in parliament.

The main supporter of the government is the Change and Reform bloc, whose largest party is the Free Patriotic Movement, holding 19 seats, led by Michel Aoun. A key part of the present coalition, the March 8 Alliance, is largely composed of representatives from the Amal (13 seats) and Hezbollah (12 seats) parties. The third source of support for the Mikati government comes from the so-called “pro-government independents bloc". The core of this grouping is formed by the Progressive Socialist Party, led by long-term political bellwether and leader of the Druze community, Walid Jumblatt. He is often considered the swingman of Lebanese politics, and manages the balance of power between the main competing blocs.

The present opposition in the Lebanese Parliament is represented by the March 14 Alliance, a grouping of political forces that came together following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in 2005. Its largest contingent comes from the Future Movement Party, led by Saad Hariri, son of the late Rafic Hariri, which has 26 members of parliament, though is at the top of a rainbow alliance of parties controlling 60 seats.

LOOK TO ABROAD

The country's foreign policy has long been determined by one of the other aspects of the National Pact from 1943, which sought to position Lebanon between its Western and Arab identities, while ensuring it maintained its own uniqueness. As President Sleiman characterized it for TBY, “Lebanon plays a prominent role in the Middle East and Arab world, given its geographical position as a crossroads between East and West." Lebanon has borders with two states, Syria and Israel, and it is still technically in a state of conflict with the latter. Affairs in Syria are also seen as having an effect over Lebanon's foreign policy stance, with the country posting troops in Lebanon from 1975 until 2005.

Prime Minister Mikati, in an interview with TBY, outlined his core foreign policy focus succinctly: “In terms of geopolitics, I've always believed that Lebanon should isolate itself from what is going on in the region." This stance is designed to remove Lebanon from regional instability in the wake of the so-called “Arab spring" of 2011 so that it can focus more on developing its economy and improving the standard of living for ordinary Lebanese.

Lebanon is a member of numerous regional and multinational organizations, such as the Arab League, and in 2010 was elected to be one of the 10 non-permanent members of the UN Security Council. Its term as a non-permanent member runs until end-2011.