The Republic of Lebanon is a parliamentary, consociational democracy with a strongly centralized government. It is one of the most religiously diverse countries in the Middle East, officially recognizing 17 different religious sects in a territory slightly smaller than the state of Connecticut. Since its independence from France in 1943, Lebanon has utilized a sectarian form of governance through a gentleman’s agreement known as the “National Pact of 1943”. This pact stipulates that the President must always be a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister must always be a Sunni Muslim, and the Speaker of the Parliament must always be a Shi’a Muslim. Officially, the National Pact is excluded from any kind of written law, but it is followed almost without exception. The Civil War years (1975-1990) revealed the inefficiency of Lebanon’s sectarian government, but most immediate sectarian issues were resolved by the 1989 Ta’if Accord, which reduced the powers of the President and increased those of the Prime Minister, Cabinet, and Parliament. The deeper issues of sectarianism, that is, cronyism, inefficiency, rampant corruption, and bribery, however, are still at large. The Lebanese constitution and the Ta’if Accord allude to the abolition of confessionalism in the future, but decisive action has yet to be taken.
The President of Lebanon is selected and appointed by the parliament to six-year terms in office. By law, the president must be a Maronite Christian. The powers of the president were diminished by the 1989 Ta’if Accord in a way that balanced power among the presidential, prime ministerial, and parliamentary powers. Currently, the present mainly acts as a figurehead in Lebanese politics, but retains a significant role: he appoints the prime minister and approves the cabinet in consultation with the parliament, has the ability to grant pardons, appoints national ambassadors, calls special meetings of the parliament or cabinet, and he is the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. The national armed forces are technically under the power of the cabinet, but the president may lead the cabinet any time he deems necessary.
The Prime Minister is selected by the President and must be a Sunni Muslim. Customarily, the President chooses the Prime Minister-designate from among the parliament members (though this is not necessarily always the case), and parliament must approve the Prime Minister along with his cabinet selection through a vote of confidence. The Prime Minister is elected to four years in office, and essentially runs the government as head of the cabinet, and is in charge of overseeing the implementation of policies put forth and approved by the government. The current Prime Minister is Saad Hariri of the Future Movement.
The Lebanese cabinet consists of 30 members: fifteen are appointed by the parliamentary majority, ten are chosen by the parliamentary opposition, and five politically-independent members are selected by the President. The cabinet is in charge of policy in all areas of the government, and each member represents a different domain of the government. Importantly, the cabinet controls the armed forces and has the ability to dissolve the parliament.
The legislative branch in Lebanon is unicameral, consisting only of the Chamber of Deputies (also known as the ‘Parliament’). The parliament is made up of 128 members who serve four-year terms. Parliament members are divided equally between Christians and Muslims (64-64), and are further divided proportionally among the denominations of both sects as well as proportionally among districts. Members of Parliament are the only major government figures who are elected by popular vote in Lebanon. Parliamentary candidates can run for elections in any district of their choosing, but they can only run in one district at a time. Any candidate for the parliament must be at least 25 years old and a Lebanese citizen, or must have lived in Lebanon for a minimum of ten years after their naturalization. The Parliament is led by the Speaker of the Parliament, who, by custom, is a Shi’a Muslim. The Speaker is elected every four years. Currently, the Speaker is Nabih Berri of the Amal Movement.
The Lebanese Parliament is responsible for law-making, national expenditure, electing the President (by a 2/3 majority) and approving the Prime Minister, who is selected by the President. Parliament members can also hold ministerial positions, but they cannot simultaneously hold any other significant position, including ones in religious offices. Lebanese citizens (or those who have been naturalized for 10 years) are eligible to vote in parliamentary elections once they reach the age of 21, and citizens are able to vote for Parliamentary elections from abroad by a form of absentee voting.
Lebanon’s last parliamentary elections were held on June 7, 2009, and have widely been considered the country’s first ‘free’ elections since the civil war of 1975. The elections proved to be a victory for the March 14 coalition, a multi-sect bloc of political parties and independents who supported the withdrawal of Syrian influence from Lebanon and emphasize the importance of Lebanon’s sovereignty. The movement earns its name from the large anti-Syrian demonstration – also known as the ‘Cedar Revolution’ – triggered by the assassination of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, which was held in 2005 on that date. The coalition is most strongly represented by the Future Movement, led by Saad Hariri (son of the assassinated Hariri); the Lebanese Forces, led by Samir Geagea; and Amine Gemayel’s Phalangist Party. Walid Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party, an officially secular party with a majority Druze constituency and a relatively large number of representatives in parliament, was originally part of the March 14 coalition but withdrew in the wake of the 2009 elections due to inter-party bickering.
The opposing coalition, also known as ‘March 8’, trailed behind March 14 but has largely retained their representation in parliament since the last general elections in 2005. The March 8 coalition is largely pro-Syrian; they consider their neighbor’s intervention in Lebanese affairs from 1976-2005 to have been a stabilizing factor in a highly volatile political environment. March 8 is widely considered to be anti-Western, and particularly anti-American. Originally, the March 8 bloc’s main political parties were Amal, led by Nabih Berri, and Hezbollah, led by Hassan Nasrallah. Because both of these parties are almost exclusively comprised of Shi’a Muslims, March 8 was considered to be a Shi’a movement. However, in 2006, when Michel Aoun, former Prime Minister, leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, and staunch anti-Syrian, joined the coalition after high tensions within March 14, the coalition gained recognition as a multi-sect movement.
Although the 2009 elections were generally considered to be free and fair, they did not come without complications. As is the custom in Lebanon, the Prime Minister-designate (in this case, Hariri) is responsible for choosing and assembling a cabinet of ministers, the President signs off on the cabinet, and finally the parliament must approve the lineup before the cabinet and Prime Minister are officially in power. This process, widely known as ‘creating the government’, was anything but smooth in 2009.
Lebanon currently utilizes a 15-10-5 formula to appoint its 30 cabinet members: 15 members are chosen by the parliamentary majority, ten by the parliamentary opposition, and five political independents are appointed by the President. Lebanon previously used a 16-11-3 formula, and because legislature requires a 2/3 majority for most national issues, including quorum to hold meetings in parliament, this gave the opposition a ‘blocking third’. The current 15-10-5 formula managed to avoid this issue, but in turn raised the stakes of the political game: because the opposition could not longer use numbers to block the majority, it sought to do so through influence. As a result, intense bickering permeated the political atmosphere. Party leaders vied for their own members to represent their interests in the cabinet, leading to the ultimate tit-for-tat that paralyzed Lebanon’s government for five months. Hariri even temporarily resigned as Prime Minister-designate, ostensibly as a threat to the parties whose incessant banter prevented any kind of positive progress. It was not until early November 2009 that a government had finally been approved.
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