Since the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in 2005, US policy toward Lebanon has evolved into a robust one whose mantra – a sovereign and independent Lebanon – is now the cornerstone of the US-Lebanon relationship.
This policy has translated into tangible levels of support for state institutions that potentially can serve as the foundation for a developed democracy. The administration of US President Barack Obama has been making every effort to reassure the Lebanese that their independence will not be traded as part of some grand bargain with the Syrian regime on broader US policy objectives in the Middle East.
While this is a welcome change compared to the past, when US objectives in Lebanon were a product of regional relationships, it would be simplistic to assume the battle has been won for the Lebanese. The question that remains is what effort are Lebanese leaders making to ensure the sustainability of these institutions and their immunity from political changes and interferences, in a way that guarantees the long-term independence, and security, of the Lebanese people?
Supporting Lebanon’s sovereignty and independence requires a multidimensional approach. In addition to preventing intervention by Syria and other external powers, the Lebanese should be encouraged to accept certain domestic responsibilities.
First, electoral law reform is needed that introduces proportional representation to replace the current majority-based system, a universal ballot to replace the hand-written ballots that are currently distributed by party agents and which compromise the secrecy and integrity of voting, diaspora voting, and a reduction in the voting age from 21 to 18. The last two reforms have been adopted in principle, though not implemented yet. All these elements are critical for an inclusive and functioning electoral system that would enhance the legitimacy of the democratic process.
Second, the establishment of a political party law that fosters the formulation of political platforms that transcend sectarian divisions is necessary to lift the quality of internal dialogue around strategic choices and development needs. Such a law would be the foundation of a new system that replaces the current personality-based, post-feudal system that dominates Lebanese politics.
Third, reforms in the areas of rule of law and administrative decentralisation would expand the authority of the government throughout the country while safeguarding citizen participation and security.
Political leaders have been reluctant to embrace such reforms that may undermine their domination of political power and open the system for new elites that may challenge them. There are signs of hope, however. To name but a few, President Michel Sleiman’s position regarding the establishment of a bi-cameral parliament, an important yet ignored resolution in the Ta’if Accord (which led to the end of the 15-year civil war in 1990); and Minister of Interior Ziyad Baroud’s establishment of the Independent Election Commission and the empowerment of civil society in the upcoming electoral process.
Lebanon’s imminent 7 June elections have been largely framed as a battle between the pro-West March 14th alliance and the pro-Syria and Iran March 8th alliance in opposition. Such simplifications understate the role of reform-minded, independent forces and leaders within and beyond both groups. Their role is particularly important as a landslide victory is ruled out by most observers.
While the results of the elections may have an impact on governing modalities in Lebanon, they are hardly expected to change the current system of governance as such. Because the political system grants every community veto power, significant changes are impossible and political deadlock is quite likely, any time a major community is not properly represented in any Cabinet formation.
Unlike the case of the Palestinian Authority, parliament in Lebanon plays an important role and no party can drive the country in any direction unchecked, as the past four-years have illustrated. Hence, a Gaza-like reaction should not be considered as a viable option by the United States and the international community.
In other words, the 7 June elections are not the ultimate battle for Lebanon’s future. Their significance resides in whether or not they will pave the way for more reforms and further institutionalise those that have taken place already. The international community should work with reform-oriented leaders to ensure the development of a democratic process that emphasises institutions over personalities. Only then will Lebanon have the elements of true sovereignty and independence.
* Lara Alameh is executive director of the Safadi Foundation USA and previously served as a professional staff member on the House International Relations Committee under then chair Henry J. Hyde. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews