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The 2008 Presidential Election and the Future of Lebanon

Lebanonwire.com 6/22/08

After a long and protracted period of concern and anxiety, the crucial and probably the most important step towards saving Lebanon has been achieved. Based on the Doha Agreement, General Michel Suleiman was elected in the Lebanese Parliament by a near unanimous vote. His coming to power was also supported by Arab and International consensus and his election was witnessed by key delegates representing Arab, Middle Eastern, European and American authorities. The fact that this Lebanese army commander, who has a proven record of wisdom, courage, integrity and unifying leadership was elected by a constitutional democratic process, somewhat compensated the Lebanese presidency for some of its diminished powers that resulted from the Taef Accords.

The presidential election produced an almost immediate change of atmosphere in the country. Life came back promptly to downtown Beirut and most Lebanese regions. Planes coming to Beirut International Airport are full of tourists and returning Lebanese expatriates; while hotels and restaurants seem to be nearly full and reservations are difficult to obtain. The Beirut Stock Market started rising almost instantaneously, and the general economic activity appears very promising.

Attention is now focused on the implementation of the next step of the Doha Agreements; i.e. the formation of the national unity government. The process of selecting 16 ministers by the majority, 11 by the minority group and 3 by the president may not be very respectful of the Lebanese constitutional process. Nevertheless, given the value of Doha in saving Lebanon from an extremely dangerous crisis and the risk of civil war, there is broad support to expedite this step without nitpicking or unnecessary delays.

There is, however, some concern that there may be inappropriate obstacles and risks of ending up with a government of opponents, residuals of feudal and militia lords, plus relatives, friends and chronic politicians with dubious past, interested primarily in using State resources to improve their chances in the upcoming parliamentary election. Despite all possible imperfections, the country may accept such government, if formed promptly and safely, to avoid the risks of security deterioration in case the ministerial stalemate becomes protracted and indefinitely prolonged. In fact the mobile security incidents in various regions and the continued incitement by some media outlets, belonging to both majority and minority, are contrary to the text and spirit of Doha and apply further pressure to expedite the formation of the new ministerial cabinet.

However, noting the apparent difficulties and delays in forming such an imperfect cabinet due to the greed or obstinacy of some or many politicians, the question arises why not attempt to work towards a reform oriented government? The Lebanese President according to the current constitution has to sign the decrees nominating all ministers together with the Prime Minister. This is one of the key responsibilities and authorities he still has after Taef. Therefore, he has the final word in approving all ministerial nominations whether coming from majority, minority or whoever is involved. He can therefore set criteria for the choice of the ministers that the majority or minority may choose according to the Doha Agreement.

Considering his constitutional prerogatives, plus the moral authority he enjoys, being elected as a consensus and unity head of State with broad internal and external support, the President should not settle for a possibly mediocre cabinet, where ministers may be antagonistic with each other and may have more interest in selfish objectives than in public service. The President could set criteria primarily focusing on integrity and fighting graft. Unity will be easier to achieve by focusing on reform since nobody will dare protect or defend corruption or the perception of such. Considering that this government will be responsible for the planning and execution of the upcoming parliamentary elections within less than one year, it may therefore be advisable to exclude from ministerial appointments all current deputies or candidates for the next election. In fact, there may be here a golden opportunity to implement the principle of separation of the executive authority from legislative responsibility. We and many political parties and expatriate groups proposed long time ago that such separation may be the most important first step in starting genuine and effective political reforms. Such step may also remove obstacles, facilitate and speed up the process of forming the new government.

We are now hearing that if the "national unity government" can not be formed in 48 hours, two months or other deadlines, we should move towards a "temporary government", "transition government" or other nomenclatures. We wonder why not have, all three characteristics, as soon as possible, in one "quality government". In fact the so called "national unity government" is also in a way temporary or transitory, since in less than one year a new government will be formed, immediately after the completion of the parliamentary elections. Therefore the President should have every right and reason to set criteria for the selection of an extra-parliamentarian, reform oriented government. In addition, in order to respect the text and spirit of Doha he could work with the Prime Minister to select 16 ministers in consultation with the majority and 11 ministers with the minority. When selections become based on capability and integrity the issues of "sovereign portfolios" and "service portfolios" become less critical and the choice of the 3 ministers allocated to the President in the Doha accords becomes easier. Politicians should remember that Lebanese citizens, in and outside Lebanon, are much more interested in seeing solutions for their country's security and economic problems than in the share that various politicians will get for selfish gain in the upcoming cabinet. We strongly believe that President Suleiman does have the integrity, the moral authority and the duty to take these matters into consideration.

Following the formation of such government, hopefully without undue delay, the electoral 1960 Law, agreed upon in Doha, will need to be established in parliament. Dialogue will then start in Baabda under presidential leadership and security measures will be tightened to assure all citizens, visitors, investors and tourists, that peace and justice will be fully enforced.

While there is consensus that the electoral law proposed in Doha, based mainly on the 1960 circumscriptions, is clearly better than the 2000 Law engineered by the Syrian officer Ghazi Kanaan to secure certain convenient results, everybody agrees that there are imperfections and loopholes that can be improved upon. A reform-minded, extra-parliamentarian, unity government may have no problem eliminating the loopholes, as well as implementing some of the progressive proposals contained in Fouad Boutros Committee's effort to modernize and secure a fairer process.

Overall, a unity reform oriented government composed of dedicated moderate ministers will be easier for the president and prime minister to work with to better serve citizens' interests, solve delayed and chronic problems and secure a representative, fair and free election. It will also allow the hope and optimism resulting from the election of the new president to materialize and concretize towards the dream of a stable, united, free, strong and prosperous country. We sincerely hope the President will provide the necessary leadership and the politicians will not miss this golden opportunity to support him in setting Lebanon on the long awaited course.

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