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For Lebanon: Constitutional Amendment and/or better dialogue? 05/25/2014

Lebanon is facing a serious crisis that may leave the seat of the presidency, the highest office in the country, vacant for an undetermined period. It is not clear if serious and appropriate dialogue is in progress to solve this problem. While the Lebanese population continues to be divided sharply into the March 8 and 14 groups with strong disagreements, no consensus was reachable soon enough to secure the two thirds quorum needed to complete the presidential election on time. The major leaders could not agree that each side selects a candidate and allow democracy to proceed. On the other hand no moderate consensus candidate has emerged yet that would motivate two thirds of the deputies to go to parliament and vote for him or her. We heard through various media that negative public dialogue was taking place. Major leaders seem to be critical and negative about each other. There are even quotations that some say “vacuum is better than the election of this or that candidate”.

The truth is that “vacuum” is the worst option because it can only hurt Lebanon, its democracy, its balance of power and even its stability. Now that vacuum appears nearly inevitable, all efforts should be directed towards shortening its duration. Some proposals have appeared previously in the press suggesting a constitutional amendment to extend the term of the current president for a given period. Others have floated the names of high rank and excellent caliber officials who need an amendment to be elected. The previous constitutional amendments effected as one time only exceptions, to elect or extend the terms of previous presidents, may have indirectly contributed to the current crisis. Therefore we believe that any constitutional changes for one time only, or directed to serve a given individual are ill advised. Obviously it is now too late to talk of extending the current president’s term for any period. Further he had clearly stated all along that he will refuse any non-constitutional extension. On the other hand, despite the availability of outstanding leaders within the political system or the civil society, we can’t rule out the possibility that the candidate who may achieve consensus, as the strong leader who can unify the country, could be one of the few who may need a constitutional amendment. In such case we plea that any amendment which can’t be avoided, be made as permanent once and for all. We all remember that the once only amendments to elect or extend the terms of previous presidents have doubled up shortly after making the once only a charade.

Those of us who have served in Lebanon in recent years know that there is a “continuity” principle (al istimraria) which implies that in case a high official in the public administration reaches retirement age or end of an appointment before a new leader is named, he or she would continue performing their duties and authority until the successor is named. A permanent constitutional amendment to apply such principle to the presidency should therefore be considered so that in the future “vacuum” is completely avoided, while the politicians continue intelligent, sincere and quiet dialogue to reach a consensus which will secure the two thirds quorum. We did not speak out on this issue earlier because the American Lebanese Foundation (ALF) is an independent “think tank” organization and we did not want to be perceived as favoring or trying to obstruct anybody. Individual ALF board member may have different political preferences and this is certainly their personal prerogative. We acknowledge that six to seven years ago some of us personally supported and may have significantly facilitated the election of General Michel Sleiman. But that presented no conflict with ALF principles against vacuum and favoring moderation and unity. We certainly would have been happier if he had more success in unifying the country and returning Lebanon to its real destiny as a link between east and west and as a mediator or healer for Arab rifts and confrontations. But we acknowledge the very difficult conditions he faced. Therefore he deserves credit for skillfully avoiding major catastrophes or collapse.

At this point we can only wish and hope that inspired and sincere dialogue is quietly intensified to shorten the vacuum period to the minimum possible. It will be great if this can be achieved without any constitutional amendments whatsoever. However, if any become necessary or unavoidable, we strongly plea to avoid the once only approach. Any constitutional amendments should focus on the future of the presidency and the facilitation of smooth democratic transitions within the constitutional framework.


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