Coalition of the unwilling

Post-election wrangling has already begun in Lebanon. 

By Elias Muhanna

When the March 14 coalition won a parliamentary majority in Lebanon's national election two weeks ago, there was much crowing and backslapping heard the world over. The United States, Europe, and the Sunni Arab regimes hailed the result as a victory for Lebanon's "moderates" and a defeat for the allies of Syria and Iran -- foremost among them Hezbollah. After a campaign season full of bleak predictions about March 14's electoral prospects and indeed its political future, the result gave the coalition a much-needed shot in the arm and put to rest, if only temporarily, any doubts about its governing mandate.

Now comes the hard part. Consultations to choose a prime minister and form a cabinet have run aground on a shoal of familiar disputes. Although Saad Hariri (son of slain former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri) has widespread support to become the next premier, the parceling out of ministerial portfolios is a much trickier task, due largely to the opposition's demand for a veto-wielding share of the cabinet. Without a "one-third-plus-one" proportion of cabinet seats, Hezbollah and its allies have said that they might simply boycott the government altogether, leaving March 14 to govern alone.

In a country other than Lebanon, such a state of affairs wouldn't necessarily be cause for concern in the eyes of the ruling coalition. However, the nature of the Lebanese political system mandates that all of the country's sectarian communities be represented within government, and so the absence of parties like Hezbollah and Amal -- who command overwhelming support among Lebanese Shiites -- would seem to be a contravention of the spirit of consociationalism embodied by the Lebanese Constitution.

On the other hand, the fact that the Constitution does not stipulate precisely how cabinets are to be formed -- and says nothing about the right of a parliamentary minority to a cabinet veto -- reinforces March 14's case that the opposition's demands have no legal basis and will be used only to hinder legislation. Meanwhile, Hezbollah and its allies (known as March 8) argue that a blocking share of cabinet seats is the least that March 14 could offer, given that the opposition won the popular vote and that March 8's presence in the cabinet without a veto would amount to only the emptiest of gestures toward national unity.

In a way, then, the debate about the veto is essentially a debate about the viability of Lebanon's current political system, raising questions about how consensus-based decision-making can coexist with an effective executive mandate, and how the interests of confessional minorities might be preserved under the tyranny of political majorities.

In the coming weeks, March 14 might well be able to get away with denying the opposition's demands on legalistic grounds, but it seems increasingly clear that the coalition will not attempt to press its advantage against Hezbollah in a manner reminiscent of the confrontations of the past few years. Regional efforts at reconciliation and engagement (particularly between Syria and Saudi Arabia) seem to have curbed the appetite for a protracted standoff over Hezbollah's weapons, which, while boding well for stability in the short term, are no guarantee of future security. As long as the Lebanese continue to navigate the political wilderness without a satisfactory constitutional road map, they will have to depend on outside powers to help show them the way.

Elias Muhanna writes the Lebanese political blog qifanabki.com. He is a Ph.D. candidate in Arabic and Islamic studies at Harvard University.

Photo: HASAN IBRAHIM/AFP/Getty Images

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