Imagine how Lebanese parliamentarians feel when they are sworn in for the first time. Their hearts must flutter with joy as they take the oath they will likely not keep. After all, who would refuse to be inducted into a club that allows one to get away with doing practically nothing, get paid for it, with benefits, and do so for the rest of one’s life (and in some cases one’s children)?
With no way to appraise the performance, or even the voting record of members of Parliament, the public has little means of knowing what the people they elect are doing. As a result, legislators have the prerogative to fit themselves into one of three categories: those that choose to be active members of this supposed pillar of Lebanon’s government, easily identifiable by the committees they head; a second group simply speaks to the press about anything and everything other than what they theoretically should be doing, producing legislation to fit the times and circumstances. And there is a third group that do not bother turning up for committee meetings or even the general assembly, unless they are called upon to make up the numbers against a vote of no confidence. This final group has the privilege of hosting the so-called zaims (or sectarian leaders) of Lebanon’s broken assembly.
On top of it all stands Speaker Nabih Berri who, for almost 22 years, has used the pedestal of Parliament as the starting point to spread his influence and patronage throughout the institution and, as a result, the state apparatus. One need look no further than the last crisis over Électricité du Liban’s contract workers to see how his power can enter into people’s homes through their light bulbs and the rotting food in the fridge.
And yet people are still bedazzled by how Parliament writes and passes laws that have little to no bearing on reality, while also failing to pass those that do. The laws needed either simply don’t get passed (such as the national budget), get watered down so as to become inapplicable (such as a law protecting women against domestic violence), have no place in a globalized economy (such as the laws regulating electronic transactions) or get shoved in a drawer until Berri feels like bringing them to the floor (like a food safety law or a new traffic law). And even when laws do get passed (such as a law allowing maritime oil and gas exploration, or those concerning telecoms, electricity and water), their implementation is bequeathed to a fractious cabinet and its ministers who run the country like they are playing a perpetual game of musical chairs.
Herein lies the crux of the problem. Because the executive branch is appointed through sectarian horse-trading between eight major parties that can barely agree on anything, it becomes the body of government which is the most prone to collapse and the least able to make decisions. In turn, this has also allowed Parliament to become flippant about drafting laws, writing them up as generalities and relying on cabinet to issue the infamous implementation decrees. Thus, entrusting this non-elected body with the power to apply or not to apply the law results in an arbitrary legal bottleneck to enforcement and drafting of legislation, not to mention the preclusion of citizens from the decision-making process.
So why do we need a cabinet? The short and evident answer is that we don’t. A move to a presidential system that reforms the executive into an administrative body of technocrats would serve the interests of the country infinitely better than it does today. It would even maintain the sectarian “balance” some backward members of society seem intent on keeping through Parliament and the constitutionally mandated senate that has never been formed. But perhaps the most important result of such a move would be that it places accountability back where it should be in a democracy, with those the people elected.
SAMI HALABI is a Masters of Public Policy candidate at the University of Edinburgh and former managing editor of Executive