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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

Lebanon's leaders and the marathon task of cabinet formation

Competing demands and new undertakings are set to delay the new government

Lebanon's Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil takes photos of re-elected Parliament speaker Nabih Berri with Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri at the parliament in Beirut on May 23, 2018. Reuters
Lebanon's Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil takes photos of re-elected Parliament speaker Nabih Berri with Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri at the parliament in Beirut on May 23, 2018. Reuters

Government formation in Lebanon is often a herculean task - one that prime minister-designate Saad Hariri implicitly acknowledged last week when he changed his initial prediction that a government would be formed before the end of Ramadan to a more prosaic "after Eid."

The major stumbling block – other than the usual horse-trading of Lebanese politics – was expected to centre on reconciling the strong signals from the US that it wouldn’t abide Hezbollah increasing its influence in cabinet with the party’s call for more seats.

Hezbollah has also floated the idea of it resurrecting the defunct 1970s era ministry of planning instead of taking one of the so-called key sovereign ministries.

Possibly to avoid tension with international supporters of Lebanon’s government, Hezbollah has traditionally avoided taking one of the cabinet’s sovereign ministerial portfolios – defence, interior, foreign affairs and finance — that allow a minister significant executive powers.

Each of those positions is normally reserved for a member of one of Lebanon’s four main sects – Maronite, Shiite, Sunni, and Greek Orthodox. Traditionally Hezbollah has ceded the Shiite position to a member of Amal, one of its Shiite political allies. The ministry of finance is currently run by Ali Hasan Khalil, and MP and one of Amal head and speaker Nabih Berri’s close advisers.

"We did not ask for a sovereign ministry and we will not ask the Prime Minister-designate for a political ministry because the sovereign ministry will be the share of Amal Movement," Mr Nasrallah said during a televised speech last month. “Hezbollah will work on establishing a Ministry of Planning and will seek to fight corruption as promised.”

Although lapsed for decades, the idea of reappointing a minister of planning has endured.

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“It has long been a request of Lebanese civil society that the ministry of planning is reintroduced so as to have the minimum level of reflection about the future and Hezbollah might have a candidate for this ministry, but I do not think it is necessarily one of their priorities,” said Karim Bitar, a senior fellow at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris.

In the previous 30-member cabinet, Hezbollah held two ministerial portfolios.

“This time they’re asking for three,” Mr Bitar said. “What’s important to them is not the number of portfolios per se, but the fact that along with their allies they have what is called a blocking third, which gives them veto rights within the cabinet,” Mr Bitar said.

Hezbollah has previously used that power by walking out of cabinet along with its allies in order to collapse a government formed by Mr Hariri in 2011.

Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut, also said he did not think Hezbollah’s overture represented any red line for negotiations, and that it was a rhetorical point “intended to scare the ruling elite”.

“They know there is no chance it can be formed in Hariri’s forthcoming cabinet,” said Mr Khashan. “They said they would like to have such a ministry if possible. They will not insist on it.”

But now, in tandem with this, prime minister Hariri is seeking to form a cabinet where members of parliament are not serving as ministers – other than himself.

The proposal follows calls for the change by several main parties, including Hezbollah.

Though the two have denied any rift, some have suggested it is also a convenient way for Mr Hariri to side-line Nohad Machnouk, a member of his Future party who is presently serving as the powerful minister of interior.

“The best way to get rid of Nohad Machnouk is to separate parliament from the cabinet,” said Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut.

But Mr Khashan said he doubted everyone would agree to expand Lebanon’s unwritten political rules to include separating MPs from the cabinet, on which there has traditionally been no prohibition.

“The Lebanese system is not used to radical transition,” Mr Khashan said.

But another of those unwritten agreements might give Mr Hariri a different avenue to side-line Mr Machnouk. Though the idea has also been raised of formalizing the assigning of sovereign portfolios to a particular sect – reserving the ministry of finance for a Shiite for example – currently, the appointments are not formally linked.

“If the PM really wants to exclude Machnouk, he will give the interior ministry to the FPM,” said Mr Khashan, referring to the Free Patriotic Movement, the country’s largest Christian political party.

Other groups that support the separation of parliament and cabinet, including Hezbollah, might have their own reasons.

“For Hezbollah, it may mean that if you separate between the cabinet and the position in the cabinet, you can expand recruitment,” Mr Khashan said.

Mr Bitar said such separation could also be a check on corruption — a scourge against which all Lebanese parties rail but for which they rarely offer specific solutions.

Having MPs simultaneously serve as ministers “makes it very difficult for parliament to control what government is doing and be a voice of protest,” he said. “It means there are very few checks and balances left in the Lebanese system.”

While Lebanon is not alone in being a parliamentary system that often takes months to form a government, it does tend to take longer than most as its political class navigates unwritten agreements and engages in horse-trading over appointments.

“Typically a formation of government in Lebanon takes three months,” said Politics professor Imad Salamey from the Lebanese American University. This is longer than the not quite four weeks between Mr Hariri being asked to head the next government and their deadline.

Mr Salamey pointed out that other countries in the region and in Europe have similar systems, using Italy’s current difficulties forming a government as an example.

But in Lebanon, with a plethora of parties requiring their ‘fair’ representation and the need to ensure a confessional balance in a country of 18 official sects, the coalition governments can take months – and in some cases years – to agree.

However, he said a major difference was that in “Lebanon is that the PM doesn’t have a time limit for forming the government.” This can be a blessing and a curse, there’s no way out of a stalemate that can last weeks, months or potentially years.

The last government was formed on December 18, 2016, just a month after Mr Hariri was tasked with leading negotiations and heading the government. By contrast, the previous cabinet headed by Tammam Salam took 10 months to be agreed.

Elie Al Hindy, the head of foreign affairs for the Lebanese Forces, the party that gained the greatest number of seats relative to its previous share in May’s election, said he was also optimistic for the Ramadan deadline.

“The timing doesn’t need to be very long - our assumption is it will take a few weeks, and as usual in Lebanon, everyone will have to back down a little on their demands,” Mr Al Hindy said.

For some, that’s not necessarily great news.

“The most probable scenario is that we are going to have more of the same – the same establishment political parties sharing the pie and there is going to be some more bargaining in the next few weeks, and they will probably find a formula that will as always be unsatisfactory as far as democratic citizenship, but will make the sectarian political party establishment happy,” Mr Bitar said.