April 8, 2013 | Policy Brief

Challenges Ahead for Lebanon’s Next Prime Minister

On March 22, the Hezbollah-dominated government of Lebanon collapsed after its Prime Minister, Najib Miqati, resigned. Following consultations with members of parliament, President Michel Suleiman tasked MP Tammam Salam with forming a new government. While Salam’s nomination received overwhelming support, the task of forming the government, and, more importantly, approving a new electoral law for the upcoming parliamentary elections in June, will likely prove more difficult.

Salam hails from a prominent Sunni political family from Beirut. He is the son of the late Saeb Salam, a central figure in modern Lebanese politics, who served six times as prime minister in the pre-civil war years. Tammam Salam briefly served as minister of culture between 2008 and 2009, and is currently an MP representing Beirut’s third district, on the list supported by former Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Salam bills himself as an independent, but is close to the “March 14” coalition. He is widely viewed as a moderate, temperate politician.

Not surprisingly, Salam’s nomination received backing from Hariri, and he enjoys overt support from Saudi Arabia. There’s an overall sentiment that Salam’s task is to try and manage the deep division and tension in the country while the political players attempt to reach an agreement over a new electoral law.

Indeed, Salam has described his prospective cabinet’s role as managing the next parliamentary elections. Whether these elections will take place at all, given the inability of the various parties to agree on a law, is an open question. Already the polls have been postponed by a week from June 9 to June 16, in order to give candidates more time to submit their nominations, and give more room for the parties to agree on a consensual electoral law. As it stands, if no alternative law is approved, the existing law that governed the 2009 elections will remain in effect, even if it’s rejected especially by Hezbollah’s Christian ally, Michel Aoun as well as by some Christians in the March 14 camp. The controversy over the current law stems from disagreements over sensitive districting, which could affect the delicate political balance.

Hezbollah’s apparent strategy in the coming elections is to dilute Hariri’s power among the Sunnis and to minimize the influence of Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. Jumblatt has been able to maintain his influence by acting as the swing vote that could shift the parliamentary majority. However, it’s unlikely that any law that fragments Jumblatt’s electoral strongholds would be approved.

But the primary difficulty facing Salam is the actual formation of the cabinet. For instance, Hezbollah wants to include language supporting its status as an armed “resistance” movement in the cabinet statement. Salam and Hariri’s Future Movement have expressed their rejection of Hezbollah’s language. However, a compromise will likely be found in a consensus document signed last year during dialogue sessions in Baabda, which calls for “making use of the resistance’s capabilities” in the defense of Lebanon, “until the Lebanese Army builds a defensive capability.”

Salam also has come out in favor of the government having exclusive authority over the decision to go to war. Hezbollah will insist on a formula that leaves enough wiggle room and ambiguity in interpretation. More trouble is likely to come from Hezbollah's Christian ally, Michel Aoun and his Free Patriotic Movement, which stands as the biggest loser from the fall of the Miqati government and is insisting on retaining key ministries (Energy and Telecommunications).

In the end, Hezbollah is in no particular rush to form a new government. However, they appear to want to cool down tensions with the Sunnis for now, as the war in Syria, in which they are deeply involved, rages on. In the meantime, having pushed out Hariri’s ally, Brig. Gen. Ashraf Rifi from the Internal Security Forces, they will strive to ensure that their influence in the security apparatuses remains intact, especially as their strategic depth in Syria is now in turmoil.

If Salam's new government yields an electoral law that preserves Hezbollah's interests, they will back it. If not, they will have no compunction about delaying elections, putting Lebanon's political stability further into question.

Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.


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