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Lebanese parliament closer to choosing President

Lebanese parliament edges closer to choosing a new President

By Henri Bou Saab in Beirut for

Lebanon is famous for its high-mountain winter skiing and its sunny summer months on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean.

What is perhaps not so well known outside the country is that we have the oldest Parliamentary democracy in the Middle East - going back to the 1920s.

But while we have many political parties, our democracy is very different to what you have in New Zealand because in Lebanon the rules of the voting system attempt to guarantee representation to all major communities - Sunni, Shia, Druze and Alawi Muslims, who between them are reserved 50 per cent of the 128 seats, and Maronite Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Armenian Orthodox and other Christian denominations that share between them the other half.

Every voter votes in the district of their birth - so, for example, if you are a Greek Orthodox born in an area where most of the seats are reserved for Sunnis, then you vote for the Sunni candidate that you think will best represent not only the district, but also protect the interests of your Orthodox community.

Because Lebanon is a rare parliamentary democracy in the Arabic-speaking world, every political power has an interest - and a loud say - in the country's internal affairs.

Saudi Arabia, France and the United States, for example, support the current ruling coalition majority in Parliament made up of Sunni, Druze and some Christian Mps.

Iran and Syria, in contrast, support the Opposition coalition of parties, which is made up mainly by Shiia and most Christian M.P.s

In Lebanon, the presidency of the country is elected by Parliament, but since almost all M.P.s are supported financially, military and politically by one foreign power or another - it means that any regional rivalries are often played out in Lebanon.

So that is why when former President Lahoud's term ended recently, the country's political system went into a crisis - and a vacuum was created - when no consensus candidate could be found between the many communities' M.P.s in Parliament - and with the Saudi Arabia, France and the U.S. basically lined up to ensure "their" side one in any conflict with the Opposition, supported by the U.S. government's competitors in the region (Iran, Syria).

The unwritten constitutional convention is that the President should be a Maronite Catholic, while the Prime Minister ('president' of the Cabinet) is a Sunni (the biggest denomination of Islam in the world, including the Arab World) and the Speaker of the House ('president' of deputies) is reserved for a Shiia M.P. (the denomination of most Persians in Iran, and closely related to the Alawi branch of Islam of the ruler of Syria).

The political crisis has left many Lebanese fearful that the country could slip backwards economically as investors take their money and their employment out of the country to more stable places.

Some even fear that Lebanon could become like Israel/Palestine - a place of permanent conflict where two communities who claim the same piece of land have spent about 100 years failing to reach a power-sharing arrangement and the land is split into two and where the peoples are separated by walls and tanks.

No one in Lebanon, however, wants that disaster.

And all the politicians, no matter what party they belong to, knows that no one wants the country partitioned and broken like the sad, hopeless Israel/Palestine which is our southern next door neighbour.

So the politicians will reach a consensus, a compromise, eventually.

As December approaches, some media are speculating that the compromise candidate - the one that can win third thirds support in Parliament - may be Michel Suleiman - currently the head of the Lebanese Army.

At present, Lebanon's constitution says that bureacrats can only run for the presidency two years after resigning from the public service, but that can be changed in two thirds of MPs agree to amend the constitution. And Suleiman would likely prove very popular within the country because he has close ties with political parties from all sides, and he is also seen as having successfully defeated a number of terrorist threats in the country this year.

But whether it is Suleiman or another candidate that eventually emerges as President, a great deal of modernisation lies ahead to make Lebanon's democracy much more representative and relevant for the 21st Century.

Lebanese deserve a proportional representation voting system like in Europe, and like in New Zealand.

We need a voting system that encourages and rewards Members of Parliament that represent the whole country, instead of being representatives of their religious group's "interests" in Parliament.

In the end, the interests of Christians and of Moslems are exactly the same - a safe, fun and rich country - not an unsafe, unhappy and poor divided country.


© Scoop Media

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