Last night I was thinking about how ridiculous it is that the speaker of the parliament should be from the parliamentary minority. Only in Lebanon’s wacky sectarian system does this make sense, because despite some comments a few months ago by Hariri asking why Amal should hold the spot instead of Hezbollah, there is little to no chance that the latter would challenge Berri and take over the job that he’s held since 1992. This being the case, Nabih Berri seems likely to remain the speaker of the parliament, because since the post is reserved for a Shi’a and since Amal and Hezbollah are the main representatives of the Shi’a in Lebanon, any move to appoint someone from Future, or even an independent, would likely be seen as an attempt to “rob” the Shi’a of their political representation.
This is an interesting point for several reasons. Since the Christians are split, it seems logical that Suleiman, a consensus pick, would fill the head Christian post, president of the republic. However, had March 8 won last weekend, I don’t think it would have been such a controversial choice to have appointed Miqati as a consensus prime minister who would have been acceptable to both March 8 and March 14. Some creative maneuvering notwithstanding, had March 8 picked a PM who wasn’t from Future, by and large the primary representative of Sunnis in Lebanon, I don’t think anyone would have been that shocked or outraged. (I say primary, because the party is relatively new, and it’s difficult to talk of Sunnis without talking about Saida, Beirut and Tripoli separately.)
So maybe you see, dear readers, where I’m going with this. If it’s not shocking for the top Sunni post to be contingent on who has a parliamentary majority, why shouldn’t it be the same thing for the speaker of the parliament? Why should Nabih Berri get the post instead of a consensus appointment being made? But as it is, and is likely so stay for the foreseeable future, Lebanon is in the strange position of having a parliament that is run by the parliamentary minority.
These questions, of course, speak to larger issues (not to say problems) in the Lebanese system. These include having and both executive heads (PM and president) being appointed by the legislative branch (instead of having the president being directly elected), and more largely, this means that of Lebanon’s three presidents — in Arabic, the troika is called President of the Republic (Maronite), President of the Government (Sunni) and President of the Parliament (Shi’a) — none is actually directly elected by the people. What this means is that all three are agreed upon in smoke-filled back rooms in the tradition of Chicago politics.
And as is the case with any political system, or bureaucracy in general, the Lebanese system has an instinct for self preservation, which means that there’s only so much to be achieved with limited tinkering. This is a serious problem for Lebanese democracy, because even if everyone is behind the president now, we can all remember how what started out as a consensus pick (Emile Lahoud) ended up being a very divisive figure who was detested by what came to be March 14.
The question of reforming the political system in Lebanon is a huge one that includes many different facets, one of which is the call for bicameralism, and the case of the speaker is but one of the symptoms of a largely dysfunctional system based on the problematic idea of sectarian representation.
UPDATE: The pro-March 14 Now Lebanon has a roundup of the Lebanese press on different attitudes on the question. Predictably, Fatfat seems against keeping Berri as speaker of the parliament, but Jumblatt and Hariri seem to be supporting the idea. Berri, for his part, tells al-Akhbar (probably with a wink and a grin) that he’s “a natural candidate.” Indeed. Plus ça change…