Thursday, April 4, 2013

Jumblatt's jockeying

[Originally posted at NOW]

As the April 5 deadline approaches for President Suleiman’s meeting with parliamentarians to decide the next prime minister, few politicians’ moves are being scrutinized as closely as those of Walid Jumblatt, leader of the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) and de facto chieftain of the Druze community. Just as Jumblatt’s MPs determine which of the two March 14 and March 8 minorities becomes the majority in parliament, so too will their votes prove decisive on Friday, when a simple poll will grant the premiership to whichever candidate receives the most nominations.

Thus far, neither of the major coalitions has announced a candidate, and in the meantime they are placing fundamentally irreconcilable conditions on the nature of the cabinet overall. March 8 powerhouse Hezbollah has called for a “political” (i.e. partisan) cabinet that affirms the party’s right to bear arms – a demand roundly rejected by March 14, which calls instead for a “neutral” (i.e. non-partisan) cabinet that upholds the Baabda Declaration to “dissociate” Lebanon from Syria; an implicit jab at Hezbollah’s use of its arsenal against the rebels next door.

Nor has Jumblatt named a candidate, though in an intriguing move following a trip by a deputy to Riyadh, he reportedly cut a deal with March 14’s Future Movement leader Saad Hariri to agree to whomever he nominates. Given that Future is expected to coordinate its nomination with March 14 overall, this ostensibly suggests victory for March 14. However, informed PSP sources who spoke to NOW on condition of anonymity interpreted the deal somewhat differently.

“What actually happened was Hariri mentioned four or five names he would support, and Jumblatt will now take those to the other side [i.e. March 8] to see which one is acceptable to them,” said one source. “The candidate which has the best chance at the moment is Tammam Salam,” a former minister of culture under the cabinet of Fuad Siniora.

Conversely, another source told NOW Jumblatt’s offer to Hariri was designed to coerce him into nominating Najib Miqati, the recently resigned PM who, according to some reports, is March 8’s preferred candidate.

“The only person not on board to name Miqati is Hariri,” the source told NOW. “So Jumblatt is trying to pressure Hariri into accepting his nomination.”

“But this puts Hariri in a tough position, because he was ousted from government using Miqati last time,” the source added. “So he’s going to play hard-to-get in order to appeal to the so-called Sunni ‘street’.”

A PSP minister’s spokesperson told NOW that senior party officials were refraining from talking to the press until after Jumblatt’s interview Thursday evening on LBCI’s Kalam Ennas.

Jumblatt has, however, been quite explicit about his preferences for the overall nature of the next cabinet. In a wide-ranging interview Friday, he called for a “national unity” cabinet that would include ministers from all parties across the political spectrum.

He also specifically opposed the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) retaining control of the energy and telecom ministries, referring to the March 8 heavyweight as a “destructive political force”. “[The] FPM will not be handed over the energy and [telecom] ministries […] It’s impossible and will not happen again,” he later told as-Safir. Relations between Jumblatt and FPM leader Michel Aoun have soured after disagreements over electoral law and the extension of security officials’ tenures, reaching new lows over the weekend with mutual accusations of Zionist sympathies.

Other reports suggest Jumblatt also opposes Caretaker Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour taking up any position in the next cabinet.

NOW’S PSP sources ascribed various motives to Jumblatt’s stance on the FPM ministers. “Jumblatt always likes to empower his traditional ally, which is [Parliament Speaker] Nabih Berri. These are lucrative ministries, which neither Jumblatt nor Berri want to go to Aoun,” said one.

“Aoun is too politically contentious,” said another. “Berri, Jumblatt and of course all March 14 parties are against Aoun. So you can’t give these important ministries to Aoun and then say this cabinet is ‘non-political’.”

Dr. Imad Salamey, professor of political science at Lebanese American University, added that with potentially substantial natural gas extraction in the near future, the energy ministry in particular will take on singular importance.

“Big companies are bidding for these gas reserves, this is no joke,” he told NOW. “There’s going to be a lot of money there. So whoever controls the ministry of energy is going to be invested with a lot of political and financial gain. This ministry is going to become very powerful, and obviously Jumblatt is not in favor of Aoun having that power.”

As for Jumblatt’s rejection of Mansour, “even Berri doesn’t want this guy again,” said the PSP source. “He is the puppy of [Syrian ambassador] Ali Abdul Karim Ali.”

Jumblatt’s most important precondition, however, may be one he hasn’t explicitly stated, believes the other PSP source.

“The key ‘red line’ for Jumblatt is what the next electoral law will look like,” he told NOW. “If this law doesn’t give him enough parliamentary seats, he will not go ahead.” Ultimately, continued the source, Jumblatt’s ideal law – “what would really seal the deal” – is the 1960 law, subject to minor amendments.

If Jumblatt can indeed secure a commitment to that law – shunned by March 8 and March 14 parties alike – it will be a testament to the power his “kingmaker” status grants him. In the meantime, March 14 will apparently announce their candidate Thursday evening. Should that name differ from March 8’s nominee, it will fall – once more – on Jumblatt to decide the outcome

Yara Chehayed contributed to this report.

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