Lebanon: the problems of power sharing

Almost four months after the Lebanese election, bickering continues over the formation of a new government. Elias Muhanna, of the Qifa Nabki blog, has written a challenging article for The National which raises fundamental questions about the Lebanese political system. He writes:

In Lebanon, where political power is distributed between different religious groups, the ideal of consensual government is seen by many as an essential ingredient to maintaining a modicum of inter-communal harmony. Indeed, as the oft-repeated formula goes, conflicts should have “no victor, no vanquished” – so as to prevent the domination of one sect over the others.

However, to conflate communal coexistence with consensual politics (and, by extension, with unity governments) entails three dubious assumptions: first, that sectarian communities are discrete entities whose interests are fully represented by political parties; second, that the practice of politics is nothing more than a zero-sum competition between these sectarian communities over the resources of the state; and third, that the best way to ensure that one sect is not allotted more than its fair share of spoils is to give every sect the ability to throw a spanner into the works. It is to assume, in other words, that political affiliations and sectarian identities are one and the same thing, which has the inevitable effect of further legitimising sectarianism as a dominant feature of Lebanese political life.

Sharing power with your political rivals may be a nice idea in theory, he says, but it is almost impossible to achieve in practice without regular breakdowns and severe inefficiencies:

In most developed democracies, the parliamentary opposition acts as both watchdog and gadfly, attempting to expose and highlight the failures of the ruling party in order that it might prevail in the next election. To do so, opposition parties woo swing voters, attempt to pick off smaller members of the ruling coalition, hamper the flow of legislation in parliamentary committees, and systematically prosecute the case against the ruling party in the public sphere. The formation of a national unity government, by definition, means that there is no such thing as an opposition – and therefore no force within the legislature to balance the power of the ruling coalition and its cabinet.

Furthermore, while there is an incentive for coalition allies in majority cabinets to work together efficiently to pass legislation that will help them get re-elected, under a unity government the impetus is for the opposite: Political parties try to stymie the achievements of their rivals’ ministries, so as to prevent them from distinguishing themselves to the electorate through improved services. Ministries, in other words, become warring fiefdoms, the protectorates of individual parties rather than cogs in a smoothly-running governmental machine.

It’s well worth reading in full.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 1 October 2009.