Is sectarian strife in Mideast dimming Lebanon's 'beacon of democracy'?

Lebanon's parliament extended its mandate again, citing insecurity amid rising Sunni-Shiite tensions that underscore a jittery democracy's vulnerability to the violence sweeping across Syria and Iraq.

Bilal Hussein/AP
Lebanese lawmakers gather for a parliament session where they are expected to vote on extending their own mandate, in downtown Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2014. Protesters blocked roads to Lebanon’s parliament Wednesday in a last-ditch attempt to try and stop them.

Lebanese lawmakers voted Wednesday to extend their parliamentary mandate for a second time, citing the difficult security climate in the country and spillover from the war ravaging neighboring Syria.

The parliamentary extension to June 2017 – a total of eight years in power – underlines Lebanon’s nervousness over the political and sectarian violence sweeping Syria and Iraq.

On top of the postponed parliamentary elections, Lebanon has a presidential vacuum: Lawmakers have repeatedly failed to convene in sufficient numbers to elect a new head of state. The presidential palace in the hills above Beirut has been vacant since May, the end of President Michel Suleiman's six-year term.

Lebanon is often hailed as a rare beacon of democracy in the Arab world, but it is a dysfunctional democracy at best. Since 2005, when Syria removed its steely grip from the country, Lebanon has stumbled from one political crisis to another; paralysis and deadlock are becoming the norm.

The last time Lebanese citizens were allowed to hold a parliamentary vote was in 2009 when 128 lawmakers were elected for the customary four-year term. However, in May 2013, parliament decided to extend its mandate for 17 months because lawmakers said that insecurity made it impossible to hold a nationwide poll on time.

Under the constitution, once parliamentary elections are held, the serving government moves into a caretaker capacity pending the naming of a new prime minister and the formation of a new cabinet. The president appoints prime ministers following consultations with the elected lawmakers. However, with no president in power, holding elections at this time threatened a constitutional deadlock and governmental paralysis.

On the other hand, some politicians believe that the results of a new parliamentary election could hasten a vote for a president, which in turn would permit the constitutional appointment of a new prime minister and government. 

Two Christian political parties, including the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), the largest Christian party, boycotted Tuesday's vote to extend parliament.

“Holding elections could have been a solution to the presidential election and not vice versa,” said Gibran Bassil, the Lebanese foreign minister and a leading figure in the FPM.

Under Lebanon’s power-sharing formula, the presidency is restricted to Maronite Catholics. So far, the two main rival political blocks have rejected each other’s candidates and have been unable to agree on a consensus figure.

Walid Jumblatt, a veteran lawmaker and leader of Lebanon’s Druze community, said that Lebanon had no choice but to approve a parliamentary extension.

“Sometimes some decisions are unpopular,” he wrote in a Twitter message. “But risking the void would lead the country to chaos. This [is] why renewing the mandate was a must.”

Given decades of on-off war, political crises, endemic corruption and outdated infrastructure, self-sufficient Lebanese expect little from their elected officials. A small group of democracy campaigners did stage a noisy demonstration in central Beirut Tuesday and attempted to block lawmakers’ vehicles from reaching parliament. But most Lebanese have left the debate over parliament and the presidency to squabbling politicians, and offered a collective shrug of indifference.

Since May, Nabih Berri, the Lebanese parliamentary speaker, has tabled 15 sessions for lawmakers to elect a new president but has failed to reach quorum each time. The next session, the 16th, is scheduled for Nov. 29. The bill passed today contained a clause that permits elections to be held once a new president has been elected. 

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