Lebanon: The Political Paralysis of a Confessional System

The small Arab country will enter 2023 marked by political division and a presidential vacuum after a dozen unsuccessful parliamentary votes

AFP/ANWAR AMRO  -   Speaker of the Lebanese Parliament, Nabih Berri, during a session in the Lebanese Parliament

One, two, three and even ten parliamentary sessions in recent months have reinforced the idea that Lebanon is once again heading towards political paralysis. Towards a presidential vacuum. A path that had already been trodden between 2014 and 2016, and which did not come to an end until, after 29 months, on 31 October 2016, Michel Aoun, leader of the Christian Free Patriotic Movement party, was appointed as the new head of state. 

Now, six years later, the small Arab country seems to be facing a similar -if not worse- scenario, where the executive cabinet of Nayib Mikati, still unformed since the general elections of last May, is exercising the presidential duties. And where, to make matters worse, the reception of large numbers of Palestinian and Syrian refugees, the more than 90% drop in the value of the Lebanese lira, the financial collapse of banks, the still unresolved consequences of the explosion in the port of Beirut and Covid-19, and the interruption of energy and food supplies due to the war in Ukraine, are keeping the country facing an unprecedented multidimensional crisis. Political, economic, humanitarian and social.

AFP/DALATI AND NOHRA - President Michel Aoun delivering a televised speech on the eve of the country's 78th independence day, at the presidential palace in Baabda, east of the capital, November 2021
A Republic without a president 

The cedar country's political history has historically been marked by deadlocks and long political paralysis. And now, faced with one of the most complex situations in recent decades, this tradition shows no signs of changing. 

The general elections of May 2022, considered key in the political arena, ended with two big winners: the Lebanese Forces, the bitter enemy of the other major Christian parliamentary party (the Free Patriotic Movement led by the former president, Michel Aoun), and the movements contesting the country's crisis. This situation put in check the - until then - dominance of the Free Patriotic Movement's parliamentary partners, which lost 11 seats in the House, and the political arm of the Hezbollah group. 

This change in the balance of power in parliament, which in June did allow for the fourth re-election of billionaire Nayib Mikati as Lebanese prime minister, has become the main obstacle to the appointment of a president to succeed the outgoing Michel Aoun, whose term of office came to an end on 31 October. 

So far, the 128 members of the Lebanese legislature have tried to choose a new president in ten parliamentary sessions. Each time they have failed.

REUTERS/HASAN SHAABAN - Hezbollah's leader in Lebanon, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah

"The problem facing the country is a historical problem," says Pedro Brieger, an Argentinean writer and journalist and professor of Middle Eastern sociology at the University of Buenos Aires, in the magazine Atalayar. "Lebanon is one of the few countries in the world where voting does not follow the 'one person, one vote' system. It is a confessional system. It is a tiny country with religious groups of all stripes [roughly speaking, 18 main religious denominations can be identified], and in this scenario a confessional-based power-sharing system has been set up in which each religious group holds a certain share of power", explains Brieger, referring to the 1989 Taif National Pact that ended the Lebanese civil war and which establishes that both the Parliament and ministries should be equally distributed between Muslims and Christians. 

Added to this, according to the journalist and professor, is the lack of an updated religious census (the last official census dates from 1932) that adjusts the quotas of power assigned to each religious group with the presence of each of the confessions in the civilian population. "The current political paralysis cannot be understood without the Lebanese political system. And the political system is a confessional system," he stresses.

PHOTO/DALATI NOHRA via AP - Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati during a press conference at the government palace in Beirut, Lebanon

However, a few years ago, the Christian Free Patriotic Movement and the Muslim Hezbollah formed a parliamentary alliance that broke for the first time since the signing of the 1989 Taif Pact "the religious political cleavage" so characteristic of Lebanon. Far from fostering consensus in key political decision-making - as might be expected - it seems to be achieving the opposite. The Lebanese Congress's ten attempts to find a new president have so far resulted in a massive blank vote by both partners and their subsequent withdrawal from the House, preventing the second round of voting with an insufficient quorum.

In such a scenario, neither Michel Moawad (son of René Moawad and the main candidate for the presidency were it not for his overt opposition to Hezbollah), nor Gebran Bassil (son-in-law of the outgoing Aoun, and his initial favourite), nor the academic Issam Khalifa, nor any other presidential hopeful, seem to have an easy road to the presidency ahead of them. In addition to the complications of securing 86 parliamentary votes (or more) in the first round of voting, and 65 or more in the second, there is a political climate that seems increasingly unwilling to negotiate, as evidenced by the invalid ballots - with names such as Mahsa Amini, Nelson Mandela and Salvador Allende. 


And the government?

Meanwhile, it is the head of government - currently under the power of Nayib Mikati, who has not yet managed to form an executive cabinet - who is grappling with the most urgent presidential tasks to avoid an even greater political and economic collapse in the country. For, without a president, laws passed in the House cannot take effect, nor can cabinets be approved before parliamentary ratification. 

Nevertheless, using the pressing need to respond to critical issues, Mikati held a Council of Ministers meeting in early December to resolve the request for $35 million per month from the World Bank (for the purchase of medicines and medical supplies), the request for supplies for the Lebanese army and other issues related to the state-owned telecommunications company Ogero. 

REUTERS/MOHAMED AZAKIRA - Lebanon's Central Bank building in Beirut
The Lebanese people's political weariness

Faced with this situation, the Lebanese population has been shaken by what Pedro Brieger describes as "yet another symbol of the times in which we live: political disbelief and weariness of the ruling classes". The country is plagued by serious economic problems (such as the loss of value of its currency and the collapse of hundreds of banks unable to meet their customers' requests for cash) and health problems (due to the difficult living conditions, the country has experienced a major cholera epidemic in the last few weeks; more than 3,600 people have contracted the disease and more than 1,000 have died of it). 600 people have contracted the disease and almost twenty have lost their lives), and forced to witness the political class's inability to negotiate, the Lebanese are increasingly jaded.  

Endemic institutionalised corruption and the political inability to reach agreements have finally led the Lebanese people to direct their anger at the entire Lebanese government and political parties. This was evident in the slogan "All means all" used in the mass demonstrations of 2019, as well as in the growth of anti-crisis political groups during the general elections this May. Indeed, without going any further, negotiations with the World Bank to restructure the country's debt are one of the main issues that need political consensus. They need a president.