Worried Lebanese

thought crumbs on lebanese and middle eastern politics

Coalition government building 101 (the problem)

Posted by worriedlebanese on 10/09/2009

building_blocksMost analysis I have read on the cabinet formation process is marked by a particular model, that of majoritarian western systems. The approach is quite simple. After labelling the March XIV® coalition (and gluing to it Walid Joumblatt’s Democratic Gathering withstanding his extremely public departure) as the majority, the analyst expects the Prime minister designate to act as the French President, the British Prime Minister or the American President: swiftly put together a cabinet, with the generous option of integrating ministers belonging to the Opposition® as he deems fit.

One would have expected Lebanon’s consociationalists to react to such an approach, but they have been rather discreet lately. They’re probably bothered by the fact that consociational theory and analysis doesn’t exactly fit with their current political preferences. This is particularly true of Antoine Messarra, the co-founder (with Theodor Hanf) of the Lebanese consociational school.

Now let’s set aside our assumptions and normative stands, and look at reality’s ugly face. So today, we’ll  first look at who we are, and who we resemble. Tomorrow, we’ll be looking into the challenges that any Prime Minister designate will face in forming a government given our political system and the political conjoncture.

  • Our society is divided along many lines (regional, social, confessional). Of late, four political groups have succeeded in transcending all lines except one; mobilising “their” communities behind them (Amal-Hezbollah mobilises the majority of Shiites, Mustaqbal mobilises the majority of Sunnis, Ishtiraki mobilises the majority of Druze). Moreover, this extreme mobilisation was facilitated by a regional polarisation between Sunnis and Shiites that was locally fed instead of being neutralised. Each side has its weapons: Hezbollah is fully armed and operational; Mustaqbal holds the financial weapon (without its support, the Lebanese economy will be crippled and would certainly collapse).
  • Our political system is extremely complicated. Its rules are an odd mix of jacobine republicanism and ottoman communalism. And these rules are circumvented by the dominant political groups, most importantly the Quadripartite Oligarchy (Amal, Hezbollah, Mustaqbal, Ishtiraki) and its junior partners (Marada, Murr, Kataeb, Lebanese Forces, Democratic Party… and probably the FPM if given the time and the opportunity, only time will tell). Historically, the Lebanese army has on three occasions circumvented the constitutional rules (during the presidency of Fuad Chehab, Charles Helou and Emile Lahoud) but seems rather put for the time being.
  • The political conjecture is extremely complex. Behind the two labels March XIV® and Opposition®, we find two composite coalitions grouping rival parties with distinct ideologies, interests, constituencies and regional allies. Since the departure of Walid Jumblatt’s Democratic Gathering from March XIV®, the two coalitions have roughly the same size. What complicates matters even further are these four constraining factors:
    • the great mistrust between the two main pillars of each coalition (Mustaqbal, Hezbollah)
    • the decision of these two pillars to participate in the next government (so as to secure their interests and outlook).
    • the fact that their decision to participate in the government cannot be ignored, because of the mobilisation of their respective communal group behind them, their international alliances and their respective weapons (financial for one, military for the other).
    • the solidarity each pillar has shown toward the members of his coalition, especially its Christian junior partners (that give them a trans-communal dimension): FPM (and its christian allies), Lebanese Forces, Kataeb.

So forget about the US, France or the UK. You can’t expect our democracy to function like theirs. If you want to compare our situation to that of another country, learn from their experience, see what mechanisms they have devised to facilitate or accelerate the process of government formation, look elsewhere: to Belgium, to Israel, to Northern Ireland. That’s what we’ll do tomorrow.


9 Responses to “Coalition government building 101 (the problem)”

  1. PN said

    Hi WL,

    Among the many interpretations of this subject matter that I’ve come across in an array of Lebanese newspapers and blogs, I think this analysis is the most in touch with reality.

    Btw, the last paragraph in your previous post entitled ” Something fishy about the cabinet formation process” appears as truncated. Could you please repost it.


    • thanks
      problem fixed. thank you for pointing it out to me. I’m glad someone is reading and appreciating.
      hope not to disappoint u

      • PN said

        Thanks WL. Even though we may not be in full aggreement on some of the issues you discuss, your perspective is quite refreshing. I always enjoy reading your posts and in many instances, I find them informative.

        Keep at it. Am sure am not the only one reading.


      • Thanks again for the compliment, PN.
        But I honestly wish you’d highlight the points you disagree with and share with me your insights and understanding. You seem to be rather well informed about local politics.
        Looking forward to reading you,

  2. lirun said

    maybe lebanon should convert to a federal system of cantons.. to me it screams switzerland..

    • The question of federalism is a whole different debate.
      A couple of weeks ago, a regular reader tried to “out” me as a federalist. I have my views on the subject. I think I should develop it in a coming posting (though be prepared, it’s probably going to shock you because it also deals with the Palestinians of Lebanon, how’s that for a teaser).

  3. lirun said

    wow.. thats pretty seductive there bro 🙂

    i think many people lack information on the swiss system.. its a strong one.. many people dont realise that CH has over twenty cantons and dont understand the concept of a polichromatic collage of slathers of culture.. its worth exploring..

    i look fwd to reading your views..

    • The Swiss system is much talked about within Lebanese federalists circles. The Swiss embassy has been trying to promote it for the past few years through seminars and conferences. Interestingly enough, neither the promoters nor the detractors of the system have presented convincing arguments.
      The discussion is usually extremely ideological and opposes authoritarian jacobines (who find diversity threatening and communal feelings degrading) and secessionists (who fear the other side and want to secure their autonomy for lack of a better choice, i.e. independence), neither of whom is ready to openly admit their motivations. When cornered, both would celebrate diversity and unity, and reject accusations of being authoritarian or secessionist. But if you take the time to argue with them, you’ll find out that these are exactly what they boil down to.

  4. PN said

    Hey WL,

    What I meant is occasional disagreements in relation to a few of the many diverse topics you discuss on your blog. For instance, we had a bit of disagreement w.r.t. some issues you had raised in your post dated 02/08/09 entitled “The Paradoxes of Anticonfessionalism”. Btw, my question marks from 04/08/09 were left unanswered. Perhaps, I convinced you or my reply simply slipped through the cracks. It looked like you had many obligations back then and Patrick had kept you quite busy.

    Anyhow, thanks for the kind invite to share my insights on your platform. Am not that communicative here simply because on many occasions we tend to share similar insights about the various subjects although you’re approach/input is mostly tailored in an academic style whereas mine is more so in lay terms.

    Additionally, you introduce yourself as not being affiliated with any political party in Lebanon and that is quite obvious from your writings. As much as I’d like to have an open approach and look at things with an objective lens, having been an FPM supporter for alomst 2 decades, am sure it is more difficult for me to look at things with your objectivity.

    I promise to try and be more active in the discussion.


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