Setting The Agenda: What’s Next In Lebanon?
Now that the elections are over, it is only natural to ask about emerging coalitions; the results are in, claims and conspiracies are being made, and Lebanon has yet to surmount this deteriorating economic crisis. Although there is little reliable demographic information available as to the gender, age, and geographic breakdowns of this year’s voter turnout, there is also very little disagreement over the fact that the hard work towards recovery must begin now. Voters seemed to have made that message clear given the results.
The only realistic claim regarding the speculation of emerging coalitions is that there will likely be shifting alliances based on issues, rather than solidified camps. So far, independents and the opposition from civil society have formed a bloc of fourteen, but where are the others? The truth is that it is still too early to tell.
For example, what will be the fate of the Lebanese Forces in the new Parliament? It seems self-evident that the Lebanese Forces should build a bloc on more than an ‘anti-Hezbollah militia’ platform. An ‘Anti-Hezbollah’s arms’ posture is too narrow a plank to sustain the myriad of pressing issues the country faces. Even within its own ranks, how will the interests of members returning from the previous government situate themselves in this new Parliament if those interests are addressed or not? Will the party use this time seeking payback or will more maneuvering be required of them to secure additional services for their constituents? There are still 60+ seats out there that represent constituencies whose major issues are hunger and corruption as well as the lack of access to bank accounts, health and social services. That’s why I believe that the “anti-” messaging will have to find room for additional positions on which to ground their platforms or Lebanon will be in gridlock.
It is far more logical to address the questions faced by the past unsuccessful governments and assess how new coalitions will orient themselves around the following issues: improvement of the electricity sector, banking reform, independence of the judiciary, anti-corruption measures, and the many other policies that must be seriously implemented and prevail in the country. Can the various opposition and independent groups generate a common platform that will draw the necessary votes for success? One would think that this should be a no-brainer, but then again, this is the Lebanese government that we’re talking about.
For example, most politicians agree that electricity reform and restructuring is needed but fault lines emerge over contracting, oversight, reporting, rate-setting, and other trivial points of contention that would be easier to solve if the new parliament and government just follow the steps that were outlined in legislation passed in March: independent monitors, a non-confessional electricity board, an independent body for setting rates and production issues, etc. The political will to act on these issues should now be less difficult to muster.
Another immediate agenda item is the monetary and fiscal reforms required to stop the hemorrhaging of the currency, provide access to depositors’ accounts, begin banking sector restructuring, and bring stability and discipline to public spending and the foreign exchange rate. These reforms are also tied into measures that fit under the “anti-corruption” designation, which include public contracting, rules concerning privatization, recapturing illegally assigned public lands, and tracking abuses of capital controls.
You get the point – the national agenda is exceedingly long and there is no unanimity regarding priorities. I therefore suggest select issues that coalitions can prioritize as they aggregate to elect the next speaker of the parliament. There is popular concern surrounding the electricity sector, capital controls, the protection of small depositors and access to their funds, and the commitment to a robust social safety net. These are all issues that will rally the public and can demonstrate to the people that the new Members of Parliament are concerned with getting Lebanon on the track to recovery and renewal.
After over thirty years of mismanagement, however, these steps will only just begin to make a difference. The key is building a government with the confidence and courage to enact reform and restore the public trust. So after the speaker is elected, what follows is the new government – selecting the prime minister and approving the council of ministers and their mission statement. This is all a prelude to the presidential election that will pose a dilemma if the choices of speaker and prime minister have been contentious. Lebanon is in a dilemma for the newly-elected parliament – how should it proceed in choosing the Speaker? Who will have the power to channel the process of nominating the Prime Minister, the cabinet, and eventually the President?
So Lebanon watchers should focus now on encouraging the parliament to build a reform agenda, electing a speaker committed to that platform, and advocating for similar commitments in the exercises to complement the government’s formation. Lebanon has the expertise and the will of the people on the side of reform, now is the time for the government to do what it has been elected to do: save Lebanon and serve its people well.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon, a non-profit, nonpartisan leadership organization of Lebanese-Americans.