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Lebanon - Government

Lebanon has been divided since about 1976 into autonomous cantons and enclaves that function as small states. Most Lebanese do not identify themselves primarily with the state. A heterogeneous collection of mutually hostile religious and ethnic minorities, the Lebanese population has traditionally pledged its allegiance to sects rather than to the state. The fractious nature of the population was reflected in a weak central government, which maintained only a token national army in an environment where neighboring states supported formidable armed forces.

Lebanon is a parliamentary democracy in which the people constitutionally have the right to change their government. However, from the mid-1970s until the parliamentary elections in 1992, civil war precluded the effective exercise of political rights. According to the constitution, direct elections must be held for the parliament every 4 years. Parliament, in turn, is tasked to elect a new president every 6 years. A presidential election scheduled for the autumn of 2004 was pre-empted by a parliamentary vote to extend the sitting president's term in office by 3 years. The president, based on binding consultations with the parliament, appoints the prime minister. Political parties may be formed. However, the political parties that do exist are mostly based on sectarian interests.

Since the emergence of the post-1943 state, national policy has been determined largely by a relatively restricted group of traditional regional and sectarian leaders. The 1943 national pact, an unwritten agreement that established the political foundations of modern Lebanon, allocated political power on an essentially confessional system based on the 1932 census. Until 1990, seats in parliament were divided on a six-to-five ratio of Christians to Muslims (with Druze counted as Muslims).

Since 1989, demographics have continued to shift, to the detriment of the Christians and the benefit of the Shia. No census has been taken in Lebanon since the one conducted by the French in 1932, which showed Christians with 55% of the population, a figure that has shrunk to a current estimated maximum of 35% -- a reflection of the effects of war, migration, and higher birth rates among Muslims. Sunni population figures are estimated to be around 25%, and the Shia are estimated at a minimum 30% of the population and growing rapidly.

No effective, stable government can crystallize without a renegotiation of the political rules of the game. Although most politicians half-heartedly call for the full implementation of the 1989 Ta'if Accord that ended the civil war, they also admit that the accord is a flawed tool engineered by Syria to control Lebanon through its proxies.

The accord, which was never fully implemented, called for movement toward a non-confessional system and in the meantime realigned the power-sharing agreement between the Christians and the Muslims to establish a 50/50 balance in the parliament (instead of the former 60/40 in the Christians' favor), with the Sunnis, the Shia, the Druze and the Alawites dividing the Muslim share. The cabinet was also equally divided between Christians and Muslims. In the new system, a strong Sunni prime minister supplanted the formerly all-powerful Christian president, the Shia obtained the presidency of the parliament, and the Druze would have the presidency of the senate at such time as one is created.

Senior positions in the government bureaucracy are allocated on a similar basis. Indeed, gaining political office is virtually impossible without the firm backing of a particular religious or confessional group. The pact also allocated public offices along religious lines, with the top three positions in the ruling "troika" distributed as follows:

  • The presidency is reserved for a Maronite Christian;
  • The prime minister, a Sunni Muslim, and
  • The speaker of parliament, a Shi'a Muslim.

Efforts to alter or abolish the confessional system of allocating power have been at the center of Lebanese politics for decades. Those religious groups most favored by the 1943 formula sought to preserve it, while those who saw themselves at a disadvantage sought either to modify its demographic formula or to abolish it entirely. Nonetheless, many of the provisions of the national pact were codified in the 1989 Ta'if Agreement, perpetuating sectarianism as a key element of Lebanese political life.

Although moderated somewhat under Ta'if, constitutionally, the president has a strong and influential position. The president has the authority to promulgate laws passed by the Chamber of Deputies, to issue supplementary regulations to ensure the execution of laws, and to negotiate and ratify treaties.

The Chamber of Deputies is elected by adult suffrage (majority age is 21) based on a system of proportional representation for the various confessional groups. Political blocs are usually based on confessional and local interests or on personal/family allegiance rather than on left/right policy orientations.

The parliament traditionally has played a significant role in financial affairs, since it has the responsibility for levying taxes and passing the budget. It also exercises political control over the cabinet through formal questioning of ministers on policy issues and by requesting a confidence debate.

Lebanon's judicial system is based on the Napoleonic Code. Juries are not used in trials. The Lebanese court system has three levels--courts of first instance, courts of appeal, and the court of cassation. There also is a system of religious courts having jurisdiction over personal status matters, such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance, within particular religious communities.

A new version of the 1975 war showed its ugly face briefly when, on May 7, 2008, a Cabinet meeting lacking Shiite representation adopted two decrees considered hostile to the Shiite organization of Hizbullah that were summarily rejected by the majority of the Shiite community. A few days later fighters allied with Hizbullah took over the Sunni area of West Beirut and forced the Cabinet to retract its decrees. This was enough for all the parties involved to rethink their positions, meet in Doha in May 2008, and agree to:

  • Elect a consensus candidate to the post of President that had become vacant several months earlier;
  • Form a national unity government in which the opposition (Hizbullah and its allies) has veto power over major decisions; and
  • Conduct a parliamentary election according to an earlier law thought to reflect a more accurate representation of the Christian religious communities.

In reality the Doha Agreement was an acknowledgement that no major decisions of the Lebanese Government can be effective without the consent of all major religious communities, regardless of how large the majority supporting the Government in the House of Deputies may be. This Agreement was not consistent with the provision of the written Constitution to which the Lebanese polity is supposed to refer in resolving their political differences.

The Doha Agreement, like the ones preceding it, was a tacit acknowledgement by the Lebanese political leaders that constitutional rule in Lebanon is subordinate to the consensus of its major religious communities, irrespective of the democratic rule under which the parliamentary minority submits to the majority. When such a consensus occurs, all constitutional barriers can be removed either within or outside the constitutional process, as illustrated by the election of the current President of the Republic before the expiration of the two-year period prescribed in article 49 of the Constitution.

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Page last modified: 21-02-2016 20:11:11 ZULU