It is almost three years since Ziyad Baroud stepped down from his post as Lebanon’s minister of interior, yet he remains firmly in the public eye. The broad appeal which he cultivated as a hard-working and conscientious minister has not dissipated, while his central role in drafting the recently launched decentralization plan has kept him close to the heart of Lebanese policy-making.
But whether the public image is a carefully crafted ploy or a natural accident of his industrious habits is difficult to gauge. Though he remains tight-lipped on the topic, Baroud has been included in almost every short-list of possible successors to President Michel Sleiman, with a decision due to take place by May 25. In the search for a centrist consensus figure, his is a natural name to mention. But does he want the job?
To ask him this – and to discuss current events in Lebanon – Executive sat with Baroud on the margins of a recent event organized by the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies.
Having just spent three hours discussing the decentralization bill with an audience of journalists and stakeholders, Baroud is in no mood to delve into the nitty-gritty of the proposed reforms. Yet he defends the idea that transparency and accountability would be improved by the initiative, despite some fears that decentralization could simply displace rather than eradicate corruption in the country.
Greater civic participation would be the key factor. “When you go on the decentralized level, you get more involvement by the people,” Baroud says. “They can monitor what’s happening, elect their representatives, and they can follow what they are doing. Those representatives become more accountable to the citizens.”
Specific transparency measures also underpin the theory. “We made it mandatory [in the bill] for the decentralized bodies to publish their accounts, publish their decisions, and we made it possible for every single citizen to get copies of any paper they would like to see,” he says. “So nothing is forbidden [from review] anymore. The elected councils have to publish their accounts on their website.”
As former minister of interior, Baroud also has hands-on experience in security management. And despite some disappointment about the lack of grand reforms during his tenure, he is bullish about his time in office. “The three years I spent at the ministry were good, security-wise,” he says. “We didn’t have any major security issues.” He mentions the organization of elections in a single day, in 2009; a first for Lebanon. Baroud was awarded the United Nations Public Service Award for the feat. “This was a security success,” he says.
Yet he also acknowledges that he governed in “different times.” The precarious security situation today, exacerbated by regional turmoil and growing sectarian and political tensions in Lebanon, requires a more concentrated focus. Baroud nevertheless sees things positively. “I think that many things are being done in the [right] direction,” he says, referring to a temporary calm in the country after increased military intervention between rival communities in areas such as Tripoli. “I don’t know to what extent it is sustainable, but we’ll see.”
On the salary scale debate
If he was sitting in Parliament today, what would his views be on the current arguments surrounding the draft law to raise public sector salaries? Baroud is critical of the entire process of horse-trading which permeates the dispute. In fact, for him, Parliament should not even be having the debate. “There is a grand Absentee here, with a capital A,” he says. “That is the Economic and Social Council, which is forgotten about.” The council was first established in 1999 to act as a consultative body of representatives from various economic and social sectors. In theory, it would be tasked with negotiating agreements on issues such as wage increases, but it has not convened in over 10 years, much to the chagrin of advocates such as Baroud. “[It] should have been created, should have been re-elected; it could have managed this whole debate.” In the meantime, “we are not seeing a real debate. It is a complete auction.”
On the Presidency
Perhaps if he occupied the highest office in the land he could have more influence over such processes? Regrettably, Baroud does not get drawn into such a discussion. He deftly yet bluntly sidesteps any mention of the upcoming presidential elections, despite being constantly listed as a possible consensus candidate. “I didn’t declare my candidacy,” he reminds us. “I am not giving any media statements regarding the presidential elections.”
In fact, the closest that he comes to discussing the presidential issue is when he mentions his support for a directly elected president in Lebanon. “I believe that [such an election] could make Lebanese more involved in the process. It would make the process more Lebanese, and we could find ways to make it possible for every single Lebanese to cast his vote in an efficient way.” Pushed on what this might look like, he describes a two-round election. Using two rounds would make the process more representative and generate a more popular mandate for the winning candidate.
Would such a system benefit a consensus candidate such as Baroud himself? Opinion polls suggest that he would do very well if it came down to a popular election. Of course, he would have to present his candidacy in such a case. For now, and under the current system, this is something which it appears he is not eager to do.