Thursday, June 24, 2010

Why Does Lebanon Pretend To Have a Presidential System?

Quick, can you name the presidents of the following countries: Germany, Italy, Turkey, Iraq, Israel and Lebanon? Don’t feel bad if you could not name any, besides Suleiman of Lebanon, since very few people know who these individuals are and for a good reason. In parliamentary systems the head of state, a president in republics, is merely a figure head. Presidents are symbols who perform ceremonial functions but play no role in the actual decision making of the government.

Lebanon has been effectively transformed from a Presidential system, similar to that of the US, Russia and France, into a parliamentary system but someone has forgotten to tell the Lebanese about that. The daily news media, both print and TV, insist on showing the comings and goings of the president and cover his every move and utterance when in fact he has no executive or legislative power of any capacity.
Obviously the legislative power resides in the 128 members of the Chamber of Deputies and the Prime Minister heads the council of Ministers where the executive power lies. Although the president names a Prime Minister to form the cabinet he is bound by the results of the consultations that he holds with the MP’s. The cabinet once formed needs to gain the support of the Chamber of Deputies otherwise it will have to be dissolved. The president cannot on his own initiative dissolve the cabinet neither can he object to or veto the decision by the Chamber of Deputies.

If the President has no executive power, cannot appoint his Prime Minister, is not allowed to dissolve the cabinet or to introduce laws then what can he do? The Presidential prerogatives are limited to 3 areas:

(1) He is the commander in chief which could at times of national emergencies be an important function but not when private militias are stronger than the official armed forces.
(2) Foreign ambassadors present their credentials to the president
(3) The president is allowed to issue pardons by Decree

There is nothing wrong in having a parliamentary system of governance but what is strange is when both the public and the government officials insist on pretending that this is not the case. It is difficult to believe that MP’s and cabinet members are not aware of the constitutional limitations on the power of the presidency which then begs the question why the pretense? The only possible answer to this question rests on the sectarian divide that the country uses for the allocation of its political offices. Technically the Shia community gets to control the legislative branch through the position of the speaker, the Sunni community takes control of the executive side through the Prime Minister and the Maronites get a figurehead although no one wants to call it that.

Well, the emperor has no clothes. Lebanon has a parliamentarian system of government and the president performs only ceremonial functions. Let’s get used to that and stop treating this office as being what it is not. Enough meaningless stories about what president Suleiman did or did not do. Let us tell it like it is. A dynamic democracy can thrive and do well under parliamentary governance. What is egregiously wrong with the Lebanese system is the sectarian allocation of governmental positions in a totally unconstitutional manner.


Anonymous said...

Back to technicalities.
The Lebanese constitution has always supported a parliamentary system. Let's not forget that the Constitution of 1926 was modeled after the French and the Belgian constitutions that had also established parliamentary systems (one republican and the other monarchical). The executive branch is drawn from the legislature and is accountable to it, there is no clear cut separation of powers but instead a collaboration.

Not only the powers granted to the Lebanese president have always been very limited, but the Lebanese presidents usually refrained from exercising most of them (most notably, that of dissolving the Parliament, signing a decree without the Prime Minister or controlling the army).

The main institutional changes of the Taef agreement were to deprive the President of powers he didn't actually exercise. The rest is symbolic (ex: the change in article 17).

Some constitutionalist recognised the effective power the President had, and in the 1970s, some described Lebanon as a semi-presidential regime ou "presidentialist parliamentarian" regime. Both expressions were borrowed from France.
But this power doesn't change the nature of the regime (that has always been parliamentarian), and the powers exercised by the president cannot be explained by the text (legal considerations) but by sociological factors: a "style" of government borrowed from the high commissioner, patriarchalism or even the fact that the President was the only figure in the executive branch that had a cross-communal legitimacy (on his elections he was backed by more muslims than christians).
You say that the Prime Minister and Ministers seem not aware of his lack of power. This is absolutely not true. They show him reverence in public, but when it's about exercising power, they systematically ignore him (and this started under Elias Sarkis, and some would argue Suleiman Frangieh).

As for what you said about "the Shia community gets to control the legislative branch through the position of the speaker", and "the Sunni community takes control of the executive side", I think it's a very common misrepresentation of our system. It's actually the other way round. The speaker has taken control of the legislative branch, part of the executive branch and the shiite community (with no legal grounds). And the Prime minister has taken control of a large chunk of the Government and the executive powers (with no legal grounds. On paper one can argue that he has even less powers than the President), and he controls the sunni community (its institution and its political representation).
Allocation of a seat to a member of a community isn't the same as giving a community rights and power. For this to be possible, communities should have political organs, and the lebanese confessionalism doesn't allow that.

ghassan karam said...

Thank you for the remarks that I am in agreement with.
My basic point is that we pretend to have a presidential system when in reality we do not which is OK by me. I am only asking that we recognize openly the fact that we with minor exceptions the Lebanese presidency is essentialy a ceremonial function but I suspect that "Sectarian balance of power" demands at this stage the appearance of a strong presidency. I wish that we can level up with the public and stop playing these games of obfuscation.
As for the allocation of official posts I have been of the opinion that such confessionalism is unconstitutional besides being discriminatory. (I know that we have differing interpretations of this issue but that is what makes a horse race isn't it? :-))

ghassan karam said...

Mistakenly, I neglected to respond to an issue that you raise by saying: "You say that the Prime Minister and Ministers seem not aware of his lack of power. This is absolutely not true".
I did not say anything of the sort :-)What I did say is exactly the opposite and therefore in agreement with your understanding of this issue: " It is difficult to believe that MP’s and cabinet members are not aware of the constitutional limitations on the power of the presidency which then begs the question why the pretense? "
As you can see my point is that the MP's and Ministers are not dumb but they pretend that the president has powers that he does not.


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