President Michel Sleiman is poised to take a more aggressive legislative role in the next government and is particularly interested in amending the constitution. He wants to strengthen state institutions and expand some of the president’s powers but is likely to face stiff opposition.
Since taking office, Sleiman has repeatedly talked about reforming things like Lebanon’s crippled power sector, and sources close to him say he is also interested in finding legal ways to prevent parliament and the cabinet from being paralyzed every time the country’s politicians disagree. In a speech at August 1’s Army Day celebration, Sleiman said he wanted to close constitutional “gaps” that help impede democracy in Lebanon and suggested amending the constitution to “guarantee a balance of powers.”
Nazem Khoury, a close friend of the president and one of his advisors, told NOW that Sleiman will use whatever weight he has in the new government to push through reforms and constitutional amendments in an effort to “strengthen state institutions.”
One example of a constitutional change that would achieve the president’s aims is imposing a time limit on forming new governments, according to Rafik Khoury, editor of Al-Anwar newspaper. Lebanon’s politicians have been wrangling for over seven weeks to form a new cabinet, and the constitution currently has no mechanism to force them to hurry.
“The president wants to amend the constitution with consensus so that institutions function properly,” Khoury told NOW.
In fact, according to constitutional expert Antoine Saad, there are several other aspects of the constitution that allow for political disagreement to derail state work. Saad told NOW that he recently met with Sleiman to discuss several changes to the constitution that would decrease the opportunity for political deadlocks to paralyze the state and add to the president’s constitutionally-granted powers.
Saad published his proposals in An-Nahar, and they include allowing the president to call the Council of Ministers into session (a power now vested only in the prime minister), allowing the president to reject administrative decrees issued by individual ministers and giving him the right to dismiss underperforming ministers in coordination with the prime minister.
Of course, making any changes to the constitution is no easy task, especially if an amendment gives the head of state more power. With the 1989 Taif Agreement, which amended the constitution and ended the civil war, executive power was transferred from the president to the prime minister and cabinet. The amount of power held by Lebanon’s Christian community, which is guaranteed the presidency by the unwritten 1943 National Pact, has long been a contentious national issue, and the country’s non-Christian politicians are likely to view any attempt to increase presidential power quite skeptically. Sleiman would have to convince two-thirds of the 128-member parliament to go along with him on any constitutional change.
Opening up a debate about the “balance of powers” among the Maronite president, Sunni prime minister and Shia speaker of parliament would also renew debate between the Sunni and Shia about which powers those communities have. The Shia are thought to be the largest community in Lebanon numerically, and the Sunni may shun debate on amending the constitution for fear the conversation may turn to a more equal distribution of power between the prime minister and speaker.
Sleiman, according to Nazem Khoury, has the state’s interests at heart, but it cannot be denied that many Christians feel Taif stripped too much of their power. The president may be making a more political statement, positioning himself at the vanguard of defending the rights and power of Lebanon’s Christians. He certainly cannot be oblivious to the challenges he faces in trying to amend the constitution, even if he does present any change as an effort to strengthen the state as a whole. Lebanese politicians, according to Charles Chartouni, a professor of Sociology and Political Science at Lebanese University, have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo and are not likely to tackle something as contentious as constitutional change. Sleiman is a product of the army and is not necessarily used to or adept at playing the game of politics, Chartouni argued.
“These people will never tolerate anything they cannot control,” he said. “[Sleiman’s] going to try, but I don’t know to what extent his previous career and his earlier experience will allow him to beat these people on their own court.”