Ana Maria Luca

Breaking down the presidential deadlock

Is a popular vote a real option being considered in Lebanon?

The Lebanese presidential seat is seen in front of a national flag at the "Salle des Ambassadeurs" (Room of the ambassadors) at the presidential palace in Baabda. (AFP/Patrick Baz)

It’s been a year. Not many people actually care about it, but it has been a year since Lebanon has gone on without a president because the country’s legislators can’t come up with a proper candidate that makes everyone happy.


Michel Aoun and his team in the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) have been very insistent on the idea of popular vote, stressing on every occasion that they came up with a solution out of the deadlock: a  popular vote. FPM legislators have been insisting on this proposal for the past year. This time last year, FPM MP Ibrahim Kanaan was saying that the proposal was “aimed at restoring democracy and ensuring proper Christian representation,” adding: “We have presented a draft proposal to elect the president by the people based on our right and our belief that the people have the right to elect their president and we want to restore this right to them.” He’s still saying it.


Of course, the rest of the parties didn’t even take the idea seriously.  What would they have against it? The idea of a popular vote sounds simple and legitimate. What could anybody have against a popular vote?  



Popular vote, constitutions and presidents – technicalities


Introducing the popular vote for the presidential elections would require amending the Lebanese Constitution. It has been amended twice already by the Taif and Doha Agreements, but it’s not an easy process as the constitution is very rigid. The process doesn’t involve the Lebanese people at all—it’s a matter for the president, in which case the PM has to submit a draft to the Chamber of Deputies. Alternatively, the Chamber of Deputies itself starts the procedure, in which case the cabinet must approve (or not) and come up with a draft within four months (or not).


Things can get really messy if there’s a ‘no’ involved. If the legislative branch complies, life goes on. If the deputies insist on amending the constitution by three quarters of the vote, the president either complies or asks the cabinet to dissolve the parliament and hold new elections. If the new parliament asks for an amendment again, the cabinet is obliged to comply. If the executive agrees to go forward with the draft, the changes have to garner at least a two-thirds majority vote in a session that requires a two-thirds quorum. If this is not a rigid constitution, I don’t know what one can call it.


So, a popular vote would prove to be one hell of an amendment. How messy it would inevitably become is just one of the problems.


You might have noticed that Lebanon has been designed as a parliamentary republic: this means the people elect the parliament and then the parliament elects the dignified president and validates the prime minister and the government. It means that the executive is entirely subordinated to the parliament. The Lebanese Constitution also makes it possible for the Christian president and Sunni prime minister to keep each other in check—everything one signs is countersigned by the other.


Introducing the popular vote in the presidential elections means that the president gets more power—after all, he is the direct representative of the people and you can’t argue with that. Lebanon would be a semi-parliamentary republic: that would mean that the parliament doesn’t control the presidency, but that the presidency would be able to dissolve the parliament, and that the parliament would hold the prime minister accountable and could bring down the cabinet. But a president elected by the people would be untouchable unless there was a recall initiated by the people. The Maronite presidency would then become an important institution in the state and it’s debatable if Lebanon is ready for that yet and whether all communities would agree. 


There is definitely an advantage to this arrangement:  a popular vote in the presidential election means that you never have a presidential vacuum.


Those are the pros and cons for a popular vote in the presidential elections in Lebanon. But, wait! The idea of a popular vote has never even been suggested.



The twisted FPM proposals


The FPM proposals contain the idea of a popular vote, but with a twist—quite an awkward transparent populist twist. PM Tamam Salam found them outrageous. A closer look at what the FPM and Michel Aoun have in mind might explain why.


The first proposal sounds quite good at first blush, introducing a popular vote in the presidential elections. but in a different manner and with a sectarian flavor. The president would be elected in two rounds: in the first round the Christians decide, in the second round all Lebanese vote for the president.  It would, in fact, be a Christian president, not a Lebanese president. Just because the president should be Christian does not mean that he’s the president of the Christians before being the president of the Lebanese.


Beyond anything, this strange vote would require amending the constitution. And you’ve seen how messy that is.  I mean, at least go through that mess for a valid reason (i.e. one that follows some political, not sectarian logic).


The second alternative suggested by the FPM is to introduce a popular referendum to decide who’s the most popular of the candidates and then the parliament elects the same person as president. Of course, there would be two rounds:  a referendum for the Christians and then a referendum for the Lebanese.  


First of all, the ‘popular’ in ‘popular referendum’ does not mean that it’s a popularity contest. Referendums are organized in liberal democracies in order to consult the people on important legislation, constitutional changes or other fundamental issues.  Measuring the popularity of political leaders is not a reason to call for a referendum.


Second of all, the Lebanese Constitution makes no reference to any type of direct democracy—referendums, initiatives or recalls. The Lebanese people have never had the chance to exercise direct democracy. (Imagine what such a powerful tool would mean in the hands of the people: they would actually hold politicians accountable.)


Before calling for a referendum, the parliament would have to pass a new law to regulate when, how and by whom a referendum can be called. And, in this case, what do you do with the initiatives and the recalls? Do you include them or not? Do you allow the people to come up with legislation proposals? Do you allow the people to initiate a referendum or to initiate a recall of an official that has disappointed the electorate? There are too many questions to answer, and I’m afraid Lebanese politicians are not ready or sure they want to change the status quo and give too much power to the people.


The third possibility would be to allow the parliament to elect one of two of its most popular Maronite lawmakers. Maronites who are not members of the parliament wouldn’t be able run for president. No wonder nobody took this one seriously: Michel Aoun would get rid of his main competition in the presidential race.


The most sensible of the four proposals is actually the fourth: coming up with a new electoral law to elect a new parliament which would elect a new president. Good luck with that! We all know what happened in 2012. It’s like amending the constitution: a very long and messy series of bickering sessions, boycotts and illogical, obstinate stances. Four drafts have been rejected by the parliament in the past years—proportional representation or not. Not that any of the drafts was perfect, but parties were not even inclined to negotiate.


The parliament, meantime, keeps finding consensus over one issue: extending the mandates of the current members. According to the constitution (which nobody seems to care about anyway), the powers of the president are transferred to the cabinet. The cabinet names a delegate to act as interim president, and the government should function as usual until the legislators come up with a solution. But this is not about abiding by the constitution and representing the people, is it?


Ana Maria Luca tweets @aml1609




The Lebanese presidential seat is seen in front of a national flag at the "Salle des Ambassadeurs" (Room of the ambassadors) at the presidential palace in Baabda. (AFP/Patrick Baz)

The FPM proposals contain the idea of a popular vote, but with a twist—quite an awkward transparent populist twist. PM Tamam Salam found them outrageous. A closer look at what the FPM and Michel Aoun have in mind might explain why."

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    But the Prime Minister and the Speaker of parliament are the prime minister and the speaker of all the Lebanese. Yet, the Sunnis choose "their" prime minister and the Shiites choose "their" speaker. What's good for the goose should be good for the gander, no? Why double standard? Why can't the Christians choose "their" president? Punditry like Luca's is so typical of the Lebanese mindset: they erect their castles and palaces in the midst of garbage, they drive their fancy cars in potholed decaying roads, they sit in cafes amidst polluted air and water, and pretend to be more advanced than others while up to their eyeballs in corruption and tribal sectarian filth. Similarly, Luca applies rationales of legislative and constitutional technicalities to a country that is a republic only on paper. The texts in the books in Lebanon do not match the practice or the reality on the ground. We have a facade of a republic with all the fancy accoutrements: three powers, checks and balances, and all the good stuff...all in theory. On the ground, however, we have a poly-theocracy with deeply rooted tribal and sectarian barbarism. The proof: the system never works, stalemate after stalemate, despite Taif and Doha. In Western democracies, no one challenges the process that is agreed upon in the constitution, and the political fights are over ideas and policies. In Lebanon, we never even get to fight over ideas and policies because the moment we try, we get stuck arguing over the rules and the process. This dysfunctionality merely reflects our political backwardness and immaturity. A pig, even with lipstick, will always be a pig.

    June 2, 2015