Five months have passed since caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri was nominated to form a new government. Since then, he has struggled to strike a balance between domestic and regional interests. While it might take some time for ostensibly disparate interests to align, once formed, the forthcoming government will not be poised to implement reforms, certainly not those that conflict with the largely unspoken common interests of established political actors. Hence, the government’s role will be confined to leveraging what geopolitical capital it has left by adopting reforms—measures for which there is no guarantee the government will or can make good on—to buy time, all as an economic storm looms on the horizon.
The process of forming the government has been hampered by simple arithmetic, namely, that Hariri only has so many seats to allocate to the range of political parties that a “national unity government” requires. While the Taef Accord provides guidelines for how best to implement confessional representation, these exercises became more complex as of 2005. Since Syria ended its occupation of Lebanon, government formation has been subject to other criteria and gimmicks such as “one-third veto power”, distinction between ministerial portfolios, the minister as “king” (not explicitly being in one camp or another), and more recently, the notion that for every five MPs in the same bloc, they get one ministerial portfolio.
The prime minister is facing several bottlenecks in his quest to form a government. The first stems from the outcome of the 2018 parliamentary election, specifically the number of seats won by Lebanon’s two largest Christian parties. While the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) seeks the lion’s share of portfolios (once one adds the president’s share), the Lebanese Forces is insisting on claiming at least four seats. Having doubled the size of its bloc from eight to fifteen—as well as securing five Maronite parliamentary seats and 30% of Maronite votes compared to the 38% for the FPM—it is challenging the latter’s claim as the representative of the Maronite community. This is particularly important given that the battle for the presidency is looming in the background. Another ensuing battle concerns the Druze portfolio. The FPM wants to grant it to their ally and pro-Syrian regime politician Talal Arslan to break the hegemony of the Progressive Socialist Party but Jumblatt is having none of it, largely based on his assertion that he won the majority of the Druze voters. While Hariri is trying to address these challenges, he has his own set of problems within his community. Not only was his party’s share of seats reduced from 34 to 20 but more than one-third of Sunni seats remain out of his grasp; many of them occupied by pro-Damascus politicians.
Underlying this domestic power play lies regional interests. Hariri must balance Saudi’s interests with those of Iran. With Russia the kingmaker in Syria, Hariri is trying to cozy up to Moscow to avoid dealing directly with Assad but not to the point of agitating the United States. He also needs to ensure that granting Hezbollah the Health Ministry or any portfolio does not trigger an aid cut or even US sanctions. While the tension seems to be largely between the remnants of March 8 and March 14, there is another row brewing between the pro-Iran and pro-Syria camps. It has been largely assumed that they are one in the same. With the war in Syria coming to an end, the regime is re-establishing ties with once-loyal or allied Lebanese political actors who are not beholden to Hezbollah. In fact, the 2018 parliamentary election produced a pro-Syrian camp—primarily comprising smaller parties and individual politicians—which is as large, if not larger, than the pro-Iranian camp, an observation that went largely unnoticed.
While the two camps—pro-Iran and pro-Syria—stand in opposition to Hariri, they (and the FPM) still need him to form a government. Although some politicians, frustrated by the lack of progress on government formation, hinted that Hariri should quit, this is merely a bluff. They very much need Hariri. His international network and relationship with CEDRE donors remain valuable. In the event of an economic meltdown, political opponents would prefer that he be head of government and take the blame, rather than having to face such an eventuality themselves while he is “off duty”, resting in Paris.
A unity government—once and if it is formed—will most likely have the blessings of regional powers but it will hardly have people’s interest at heart. For one, it will project a semblance of unity where none exists, as it will not have a coherent vision on how to solve the country’s ills. Given past experiences, what brings political parties under one roof is the distribution of spoils among themselves. It stands to reason then that a new government will work toward implementing projects promised at the CEDRE conference while simultaneously encouraging further capital inflow and avoiding sanctions. But that is likely the extent of it.
With the Council of Ministers (COM) mirroring the parliament, it will render the latter and its two key functions—legislative and oversight—defunct as decisions will be primarily made in the COM and rubber stamped by parliament. In such a context, fighting corruption is a contradiction in terms.
We have ended up where we have been many times before, a political system that guarantees confessional representation and is accountable to few others than zaims and their regional patrons. The forthcoming government will put together a policy statement that contains a laundry list of empty promises for public consumption. This political class will troubleshoot a secondary effect of the looming economic and fiscal crisis but will not address the core problem, hoping that a mere declaration by an effectively divided government will buy it enough time to weather the storm.
[This piece was originally published by the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies on October 2018]