In October 2016, Michel Aoun was elected president of Lebanon, ending a two and half year power vacuum. Aoun subsequently appointed his political rival, Saad Hariri, prime minister. The cabinet Hariri named has been hailed as a hallmark of “unity” that could resolve the Lebanese government’s dysfunction. The cabinet has, however, embraced rifts endemic to Lebanon’s political system, making it unlikely to succeed.
Lebanon’s modern political system is designed to maintain the power and influence of sectarian elites like Aoun and Hariri. This has often come at the cost of a functioning government. During the previous two and a half years, Lebanon’s parliament tried and failed forty-five times to elect a president. As parliament squabbled over political rivalries, the country faced multiple unsolved crises. Success only came when Hariri, fearful over his waning political influence, threw his support behind Aoun’s candidacy.
Their sudden alliance, however, was not indicative of political compromise between former rivals. Rather, it was a mere power sharing arrangement aimed at giving everyone a seat at a severely divided table.
The “unity” cabinet is no different. The thirty cabinet ministers represent almost the entire political spectrum of Lebanon, from the right wing Lebanese Forces to Hezbollah, most with vastly different positions on issues. Instead of building consensus, the cabinet simply distills Lebanon’s political divisions into a single group of ministers. Everyone gets a share of the political plunder without having to compromise on their policies.
The divided cabinet’s first task will be to reform Lebanon’s convoluted sectarian electoral system, before this summer’s parliamentary elections. President Aoun called electoral reform “the first of [parliament’s] obligations,” according to The Daily Star. On January 8, he opened an extraordinary session of parliament to address the issue.
This is not the first time a “unity” cabinet has attempted to pass electoral reforms. Previous “unity” cabinets in 2008 and 2014, with similarly divided sectarian compositions, could not agree on a proposal. For parliamentary elections in 2009, an old electoral system from 1960 was used. Deadlocked since then, parliament has twice delayed elections and extended its own mandate.
Electoral reform is one of the most divisive issues in Lebanon. It cuts to the heart of the quota system, which bases political representation on sectarian identity. The “reform” efforts proposed by the country’s elites, and supported by their base, do not meaningfully address this issue and, instead, are largely aimed at maximizing their own representation.
On the off chance the new government does agree on a plan for electoral reform, it would almost certainly be one that solidifies its members’ own political power and influence. As professor Sami Nader told The Daily Star “I expect the government to reach an agreement on a compromise electoral law that will eventually bring in the same political class and ensure the sharing of spoils among the same political leaders.”
Something as fundamental and important as electoral reform is perhaps too much to ask of the Lebanese parliament. After all, the 2015 garbage crisis revealed the government is even unable to agree on a place to put the country’s trash. Daily power outages also plague Lebanon, thanks to politicians who cannot come to an agreement on how to share the profits from the construction of a new power plant.
For Lebanon to tackle the growing list of crises it is currently facing, it needs more than a “unity” cabinet designed to appease an elite political class.