There is a critical difference between a president representing his constituency and a president ruling in the name of his constituency. The former is a healthy system. The only place the president is elected with 100 percent of the vote is a totalitarian regime. In a democratic system, the president is elected either by a plurality or by an absolute majority in a parliamentary or general election. The last Lebanese president elected in this fashion was Suleiman Frangieh, whose time in office ended with the Lebanese civil war in 1975.
This situation is an indication of a democratic crisis, which is manifested in Lebanon as a constitutional crisis. The prime culprits are those who gave up on national sovereignty and linked the fate of Lebanon to the outcomes of regional and international conflicts in the days of the Baghdad Pact. The violations of national sovereignty continued with the civil war, peaked during the Israeli occupation, and created a system in which presidents could not hope to hold office without the blessing of the Syrian regime.
In modern democracies, the president usually wins barely more than 50 percent of the vote, and still he must rule in everyone’s name, and the people rule through him in his capacity as president.
The vote might be divided, but dividing the republic destroys the nation and creates a slew of new competing nations upon its ruins. Naturally, in modern democracies election results are an expression of the balance of power, which is understandably skewed by the interests of the winning candidate. However, the situation in Lebanon is different, in that the regime is democratic in appearance, with elections and voting booths, and the government is split between the president and parliament. Parliament also theoretically functions as the decision-maker during the presidential election, but in reality parliament is the source of the corruption. The regime is democratic, it’s true, but the families who governed in the first years after independence continue to govern generation after generation. Governance has become hereditary, or close to it.
Democracy rests on mutual recognition, but in the Lebanese system everyone is interested only in their part of Lebanon, their nation, their religion, their sect. The causes of conflict are legion, and have persisted since time immemorial. Sunni and Shi’ite, Muslim and Christian, Arab and Phoenician, Qaisi and Yemeni&—it seems natural that the causes of the civil war are hardwired into the land, even in those who have never witnessed the bloodshed that results. We’ve all lost ancestors, whether to the Crusaders, the Franks, or the Ottomans. Is it really so surprising that the political map is still informed by the genetic roots laid down by the Umayyads and Persians?
Parliaments in modern democracies must regulate the religious, political, linguistic and ethnic divisions in society through three main tasks: monitoring the government, holding it accountable, and passing legislation. There is a fourth task in Lebanon: the election of the president. However, the Lebanese parliament has not executed any of these duties, especially since the tripartite “trusteeship” government was created. Its bizarre system of executive overlap has increasingly blurred the lines between the executive, the legislative and the judicial. Parliament confused the issue further when they decided to abandon their responsibility to monitor the government and pass legislation, and began to violate the constitution themselves.
It’s a farce, and all the actors know that the members of parliament have nothing to do with presidential elections, but it plays out the same way every time. The Lebanese parliament operates with the mindset of a militia, and not as an instrument of the constitution. They do not represent a balance of political, economic and social forces so much as they represent the forces of reality. They have distances themselves from this role, clearing the way for military powers to operate to the benefit of the March 8 Alliance.
Thus the interpretation of the constitution has become a means of stalling the election process pending a regional and international agreement on the next president. But despite all these flaws and inabilities and constitutional violations, parliament has retained a sole virtue: even through their erroneous interpretation of the constitution and their obstructionism during the presidential election, they have at least ensured that the next president will love one half of Lebanon and hate the other half.
The counterpoint to this article can be read here.