What is preventing Lebanon’s Hariri from forming government?

Alwaght – Forming a new government in Lebanon has become a challenge in the country, drawing discontentment among the public as well as some political parties.

Lebanon held a parliamentary election on May 6, creating an optimism among the people about forming a new government that will address the nation’s problems and restore stability to the country after two years of the political disputes that delayed the elections twice, with the original date being 2014.

The Lebanese economy is now suffering from recession and Lebanon is the world’s third country with the largest national debt. The unemployment rates are in record high and the infrastructures are crumbling and in need of revamping. In April, France hosted a donor conference on Lebanon in which Beirut hoped to get billions in loans. The donors, however, stipulated that Lebanon should form a government before their cash flows to its troubled economy. The conditions have built pressures on the groups whose excesses have so far prevented the formation of a government in the country.

Six months after the election, the political factions have failed to reach a deal to allow a cabinet to come to existence. On May 24, Saad Hariri won the parliament majority’s advocacy and so the President Michael Aoun, according to the constitution, named him for the prime minister post. But he so far has not managed to form his cabinet as the factions are still at odds over the ministerial shares. The continuation of the disagreement pushed Aoun to threaten to order the formation of a majority government. Hariri reacted last week, telling him he will form a government within 10 days.

Proportional representation system, excesses, and foreign meddling

Part of the government formation delay should be blamed on a change in the electoral system. The new electoral law adopts a system of “proportional representation” for the first time in the Lebanese history, replacing the “majoritarian principle” that has governed the country’s elections since independence. Rather than facing off in a winner-takes-all contest, parties competing in a given district will be awarded seats according to the proportion of the vote that they win. The new mechanism allows the independent candidates and the smaller parties to gain foothold in the politics, which is seen a positive point. But the weak spot that the new system brings to the politics is that government becomes unstable as much as the parties’ number increases. To put it differently, increase in the number of the winning parties kills the possibility of single-party leadership and thus the remaining solution is the coalition of the big and small parties.

The new system grants the smaller parties larger bargaining powers to set up roadblocks if necessary. For example, the Lebanese Forces, led by Samir Geagea, has rejected an offer to fill four posts— deputy PM, education ministry, culture ministry, and social affairs ministry, seeking more. Or Marda Movement, of Maronite Christians, called for the ministry of labor, but the president and Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), a Christian party, have rejected its bid.

The key competition is now between the FPM, an element of the March 8 Alliance, and the Lebanese Forces from the opponent March 14 Alliance, though there is another dispute between the Progressive Socialist Party, headed by Walid Jumblatt, and Talal Arsalan’s Lebanese Democratic Party.

The critics argue that a democratic election will allow the people to remove the government if proved incompetent. But, in practice, the Lebanese proportional system, while the quota system is still in place, delivers the reverse. In the recent election, the people majorly embraced the Hezbollah-led pro-independence camp and carried it to victory but Hariri, of the defeated March 14 Alliance, stubbornly has rejected to bow to the realities in the cabinet creation process.

Hariri’s violation of the electoral system by avoiding to form a cabinet in accordance with the election results is backed by some anti-Hezbollah and anti-Resistance camp influencers. Some domestic and foreign actors are afraid to see Hezbollah gaining further power both at home and in the region. The Lebanese Forces party is one of the internal anti-Hezbollah parties. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, is a behind-the-scenes foreign meddler, establishing hurdles ahead of the political process by pressuring Hariri’s Future Movement and March 14 Alliance.

Decisive Aoun-Hariri meeting?

As the differences continued, Hariri and Aoun met on Tuesday amid a cabinet formation efforts stepping up. After the meeting, Hariri said that he is determined to form a government in the next 10 days. But if his efforts fail, he will not seek the post again.

Such a limbo has a precedent. In 2009, Hariri for the first time was designated as PM. He, however, resigned after three months. But he was again agreed upon by the parties to fill the post. In his second push, he managed to lead the parties to an agreement on the government makeup. But now he is facing a situation much more difficult than in 2009 because the Hezbollah allies have won the “guaranteeing third” of the total parliamentary seats, something depriving Hariri of the card to play the game like before.

Hariri hopes to press the FPM into accepting to form the government without the guaranteeing third adoption. The Guaranteeing third, also called by the opponents the “preventing third”, means that Aoun as a president can name four ministers and the FPM as his party can assume seven ministries. So, together they can hold one-third of the cabinet, allowing the president to sink the government by withdrawing his ministers if he decides.

But the Lebanese affairs experts rule out such a compromise by Aoun because the guaranteeing third is a recognized right for the FPM and a product of a democratic process.

Lebanon’s Al-Ahad news channel in an analysis of Hariri’s recent call on FPM for a compromise, suggested that his remarks were part of an anti-FPM pressure campaign aiming to create empty optimism in the society, while closing eyes to reality. Gebran Bassil, leader of FPM, in an interview on October 12 told Lebanon’s MTV that there is no signal of the closeness of the government formation as even an initial agreement is not reached yet.