Saturday, January 4, 2014

What now for cabinet formation?

[Originally posted at NOW]

Lebanon’s nine-month-long absence of a government, which briefly looked as though it might come to a resolution earlier this week, now appears set to persist even further following Thursday’s deadly car bombing in Beirut’s southern suburbs, which came just six days after the assassination – also by car bomb – of former minister and ambassador Mohamad Chatah.

Efforts overseen by Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam to form a cabinet have long been stalled by irreconcilable conditions and counter-conditions imposed by the country’s two key political blocs. The March 8 coalition has demanded a one-third share of ministerial seats to guarantee veto power over any decisions deemed unwelcome, while March 14 has in turn rejected the participation of Hezbollah in the cabinet so long as the party is fighting in neighboring Syria, in contravention of a bipartisan agreement reached in June 2012 to “dissociate” Lebanon from the Syrian conflict.

Nevertheless, Salam and President Michel Suleiman had reportedly decided to form a so-called “fait accompli” cabinet, composed of 14 neutral figures, by 8 January. That proposal has now seemingly been shelved – at least for the moment – in light of Thursday’s attack, with Salam telling one local paper Friday that he was giving parties one more chance to agree on an alternative option. Should they fail to do so, however, a number of sources suggested the fait accompli cabinet could become a reality once again.

“The Dahiyeh bombing definitely slowed down the cabinet formation process,” said an adviser to a current caretaker minister who requested anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the press. “President Suleiman will now launch new efforts toward a ‘national unity’ government” – the option favored by Hezbollah and the Progressive Socialist Party, among others, under which all major parties would be represented – “to see if there is any change in March 14’s position.”

“But if these efforts fail, Suleiman and Salam will likely go back to the fait accompli option. This could happen as soon as 15 January,” he told NOW.

Other sources, however, suggest the fait accompli proposal will remain inherently unviable for the foreseeable future. For one thing, there are fears it could trigger violent clashes reminiscent of those in May 2008, when March 8-aligned gunmen occupied much of Beirut after deadly gun battles with March 14-affiliated opponents. On several occasions over the past few months, Hezbollah officials and their supporters in the local press have appeared to either imply or directly threaten such an outcome. On Monday, March 8 sources reportedly told the Al-Akhbar newspaper that a fait accompli cabinet would be opposed by Hezbollah “even if it meant storming the Grand Serail,” the seat of the prime minister.

“They are threatening [violence], definitely,” said former MP Mosbah al-Ahdab of the Democratic Renewal (Tajaddod) Movement. Ahdab characterized the March 8 stance to NOW as follows: “Either you accept a cabinet with a blocking third, or a cabinet that they call ‘national unity’ that is impossible to implement... [Otherwise,] we will go down to the streets.”

Another problem with the fait accompli option, according to Future Movement MP Bassem al-Shab, is opposition to it from the Maronite Patriarch, which is of particular significance in light of the ostensibly impending presidential elections.

“Salam and Suleiman are unlikely to go for such a cabinet when the Maronite hierarchy is against it,” Shab told NOW. “If there is a fait accompli cabinet, it means for sure there won’t be presidential elections, because one side will boycott them.”

For that reason, Shab suggested the cabinet formation question may be sidelined until consensus is reached on the next presidential candidate, the election of whom will require a new cabinet in any case, according to the constitution.

“If there’s no government, there may be an incentive to find a common [presidential] candidate which would open the way to a new government. I think it’s going to push all parties to agree on a common candidate.”

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