Friday, April 12, 2013

Salam seeks small "elections" cabinet

[Originally posted at NOW]

Having concluded two days of high-level consultations with each of Lebanon’s major political parties Wednesday evening, prime minister-designate Tammam Salam now faces the crucial task of appointing the members of his cabinet.

As was already apparent before Salam was formally designated PM Saturday, this process is fraught with difficulty owing to the vastly divergent demands of the country’s opposing March 14 and March 8 coalitions, who continue to disagree even on the basic nature of the cabinet-to-be. Nevertheless, Salam has been forthright about his own vision for the government – which is noticeably, and somewhat controversially, closer to March 14’s than March 8’s – and appears determined to realize it, even threatening to resign if any parties prevent him from doing so.

In brief, March 14 has called for a neutral, non-partisan cabinet, while March 8 demands a partisan “national unity” cabinet representing all parties in proportion to their share of parliament. March 8’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) is also specifically seeking to retain control over the energy and telecom ministries; a prospect rejected by March 14’s Future Movement, which advocates a reshuffling of all portfolios.

Salam’s own preferences are markedly closer to March 14’s than March 8’s, whose “national unity” proposal he dismissed on the grounds that such cabinets have failed in the past. Like March 14, Salam advocates a strictly non-partisan and “non-provocative” cabinet whose “central task”would be to oversee the parliamentary elections scheduled for June this year. Accordingly, he also reportedly foresees a smaller cabinet – that is, one with fewer than thirty ministers.

“I’m 100% sure it’s going to be an elections cabinet,” said Democratic Renewal (Tajaddod) Movement secretary-general Antoine Haddad. “And I’m also 100% sure that ministers will not be candidates for the elections,” he told NOW.

As such, Haddad added the cabinet would be as small as is practicable. “My understanding is that it will be of 24 members.”

This was corroborated by a cabinet insider speaking to NOW on condition of anonymity, who added that “Salam expects the cabinet will only last about 6 months.”

Even so, a fierce battle is still expected over the appointments, especially to financially lucrative ministries. As NOW reported Thursday, the energy ministry in particular represents a significant financial opportunity given its control over untapped oil and gas reserves, and it is perhaps no coincidence that the ministry has already become a principal bone of contention between March 14 and Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt on the one hand, and the FPM on the other.

“My sense is that the energy and telecom ministries are the most strategically important,” Haddad told NOW.

The finance ministry has also been singled out, with Future laying claim to it, prompting accusations from the FPM of corrupt intentions.

NOW’s cabinet insider source said such wrangling over portfolios is ultimately driven by financial motives, “especially in an election season, when ministry funds can be diverted for patronage and campaigning purposes.”

Haddad agreed, telling NOW that while it’s also a question of “prerogatives and authority…. the practice under the last government shows that it’s not so innocent. It’s also about financial interest, and using these resources to indirectly finance electoral campaigns, because you can provide services through these things. And this is one more reason why these ministries should be in the hands of those not running for elections.”

Nor is this the only way in which electoral considerations are likely to shape the cabinet – indeed, they appear to permeate the debate at almost all levels, with Salam himself saying the only “obstacles” in his way are “related to the elections themselves.” One hypothesis making the rounds suggests March 8 may have granted concessions to March 14 on the cabinet’s make-up in order to secure concessions from them in turn regarding the longstanding dispute over electoral law – an assessment that Haddad described as “fair.”

If so, the implication is that a cabinet will not be formed until an electoral law is agreed on. How long this will take remains unclear, though Haddad does not expect too lengthy a wait.

“Salam has alluded in several different ways that he doesn’t want to lose momentum on this. I think he won’t take long.”

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