Lebanon Moves On after Parliamentary Election – But In What Direction?

A number of sources have compiled lists of Sunday’s winners, and Annahar grouped them by likely alliances so it is quite helpful to see districts by winner and affiliations. What the results actually mean, going forward, is the subject of a great deal of discussion and speculation. Those who have the most experience in the region are loath to predict how the new government will reflect the election outcomes since the number of members does not necessarily translate into ministerial posts. Even the Jerusalem Post opined that early assessments that painted the results as a black and white victory for Hezbollah may be quite off-track. “It is a victory for Hezbollah but it is far from the ‘Hezbollah swept the election’ story that some are putting forward. Hezbollah is only stronger after the election because its allies are stronger.” The question is whether the allies will remain in lock step with each other.

What we do know is that the election took place under a new law and with a relatively low turnout – some under 50% of qualified voters, that both Hezbollah and its allies and Christians opposed to Hezbollah strengthened their core support, and that it was relatively free of violence although a number of complaints have been filed contesting outcomes in Beirut and elsewhere.

According to Washington Post reporting, PM Hariri’s Future Party lost some 11 seats but at 21 is still the largest Muslim party in Parliament, which bodes well for his return as prime minister in a new government. Hezbollah and its various allies stand at some 67 seats if one includes Sunnis who support the Assad regime in Syria, and Amal, the oldest Shia party. This alliance now has a blocking minority that can prevent passage of any significant legislation, if it holds together.

Interestingly, the right-wing Christian Lebanese Forces, which almost doubled its number of seats to 15, and Hezbollah, have called for combating corruption a priority for the new government.

Perhaps one of the more useful assessments of the election outcome was penned by Nabeel Khoury for the Atlantic Council. He wrote that given the results so far that “The internal balance of power has been jostled and shaken a bit but not basically altered. He notes that any tally of potential winners “Does not take into account the labyrinths of alliances that were struck during the election campaign.” Earlier alliances, dating back to the 2005 elections, effectively grouped parties into two major blocs, March 8, which included current President Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement as well as Hezbollah and its allies, and March 14, based around Hariri’s Future Movement and its allies. “Western media analysis that Hezbollah came out a winner is based on the two-bloc system holding.  Hezbollah’s gains are real only if their alliance with Aoun remains solid. The same goes for the March 14 bloc; their losses are only real if the two-bloc system remains static.”

So if anything, it is better to wait to see the composition of the new government, to see which parties gain what ministries, and the overall statement of priorities adopted by the new government and Parliament. As Khoury points out, “The National Pact’s principle [established between Muslims and Christians in 1943] of no winners and no losers remains in effect, and the notion of trying to do everything via consensus instead of majoritarian votes also remains.”

Is There Any News about Lebanon Besides the Elections?

Depending on the source, and the time of day, prognostications about Lebanon’s parliamentary elections provide even more confirmation that the results will either be a landslide for good or for evil or somewhere in between. We are assured, simultaneously, that the new electoral law eases the way for new entrants into the system and that there is little chance for unaligned candidates to break into the closed loop of Parliamentary districts.

Well, what is going on and why is it important if there is so much conviction and uncertainty at the same time? In a cogent article penned by Hady Amr, who has served in the US Foreign Service and knows Lebanon better than most, the fact that the election will be held after so many delays is in itself an important achievement. After mentioning the positive and not-great conditions surrounding the elections, he notes that “And compared to an Arab world filled with either war, sham elections, or undemocratic regimes, things could clearly be much worse.”

Well one area in which there is a bit of sunshine is the number of women who have entered the contests. Although the number of female candidates from the original list has declined by some 22%, there are still a record number of 86 female candidates competing for Lebanon’s 128 legislative seats in a country where women make up only three percent of the current parliament. Lebanon ranked 137 out of 144 countries on the Global Gender Gap Report 2017, published by the World Economic Forum (WEF), and 142 when it comes to political empowerment, as reported in an article in Al-Jazeera. A long way to go for sure and it is hoped that more women in parliament will lead to ground-breaking legislation and role models that start to improve Lebanon’s ranking through empowering more women and girls to enter the public political space.

But the old guard is not going softly to their cabanas on Zaitunya Bay. More than a dozen candidates are directly related to current power brokers and are heavily favored in their districts. In addition, the existing distribution of seats divided equally between Christians and Muslims further excludes new entrants (National Democratic Institute graph demonstrates the overall distribution). As in other countries, access to media is important and is priced out of the range of smaller parties, independents, and those who don’t own or have major influence with existing outlets; so social media is important in reaching out to voters.

The Lebanese Center for Political Studies (LCPS) published a very useful article describing how power brokers and parties work to influence voters and make sure they participate correctly in the election. The system relies of building strong ties with influencers in local communities and ensuring that services target those who can best mobilize votes for particular candidates.

Given that there are a number of competitive races and the heightened interest in the positions of the candidates on domestic issues, party platforms have appeared addressing local concerns. Among those mentioned most often are quality health care, access to a functioning power system, educational reform, waste management, the environment, infrastructure improvements, transparency in government contracting, reducing corruption, and enhanced human rights protections. Clearly on the table but largely unspoken are how to deal with the Syrian refugees, assistance to host communities, eliminating bias in government programs and the army and security services, and internal power balances among Sunnis and Christians.

The most critical issue, if and when Hezbollah will draw Lebanon into a war with Israel, is only mentioned loudly by Hezbollah and its allies, continuing to claim that they represent Lebanon’s best security guarantee. While some have mentioned that Hezbollah will increase its seats in parliament at the expense of Sunni representation, there is a bit of hopefulness that their bloc will not attain the two-thirds needed to have a veto-proof majority in parliament, despite the reality that it only takes one-third plus one to ensure gridlock, as Hezbollah has demonstrated skillfully in the past.

So while Lebanon is on the edge of a ground-breaking election, it continues to teeter on the brink of an unwanted war that the great majority Lebanese wants to avoid. The policy of dissociation, staying out of the affairs of others in the region, will be the first item on the table for the new parliament given the rapid consolidation of Assad’s power in Syria, bringing even more pressure on Lebanon on multiple fronts. Managing this complex agenda will take all of the skills of the executive and legislative leadership in the country.



King Urges Parliament to Take Action, Accountability for Country’s Future

Morocco sovereign stresses joint responsibility with local elected leaders in address to Parliament

Last week, King Mohammed VI of Morocco spoke to the new session of Parliament, remarking on the 50th anniversary of its founding and its role in moving the country forward. As is characteristic of the King’s public addresses, he understands the value of the “bully pulpit” in touching on issues of public service, economic challenges, and the role of politics in governance.

It was, frankly, a tough speech for some politicians to hear. As both the King’s words and subtext made clear, he feels strongly that they should more actively shoulder their responsibility for changes and reforms that have been discussed for far too long and that need to be acted on for the good of the country. For example, “The Parliamentary Mandate…is a national mission, and by no means a source of political gains.”

Harkening back to the landmark 2011 Constitution, the King reminded the members of the need to complete the implementation of its many clauses through passage of organic laws that define policies, procedures, and protocols. In this process, he noted that “you display a sense of national consensus and stick to the broad-based participatory approach that characterized the preparation of the Constitution.”

The King also made it clear that “what really matters to us, is not only the number of laws adopted, but also, and most importantly, the legislative quality of the bills enacted.” To this end, he called on the parliament to clarify the rules of procedure for the opposition in parliament, defining their rights and processes for contributing to the development of legislation.

He also commented on the exercise of separation of powers between Morocco’s executive branch of government (the Ministers) and the legislative (Parliament).  “To ensure sound political practices, based on efficiency, coordination and institutional stability,” King Mohammed said, “I must insist on the need for constructive dialogue and close, balanced cooperation between Parliament and the government,” adding that “Parliament should not be turned into an arena for politicking and political wrangling,” a reference to the previous ruling coalition that was brought down by the withdrawal of the Istiqlal Party.

Partners in reform and development: Parliament and local officials

In addressing the importance of locally elected officials, the King made a clear distinction between the Parliament, which passes national policies, and local officials “who are accountable before those who voted for them.” He called for “close interaction with the citizen, and genuine readiness to heed his pressing concerns and to attend to his administrative and social needs.” The King spoke in some details about the “wide discrepancies…in the way local and regional affairs are managed”—some quite effectively, others “plagued by mismanagement on the part of their elected bodies.”

Using Casablanca as an example, King Mohammed noted that the goal of making the city an international financial hub “cannot materialize just by taking a decision to this effect, or by erecting huge, state-of-the-art buildings.” In addition to world-class infrastructure and services, “Good governance must be upgraded, together with an appropriate legal framework…highly skilled labor and modern management techniques…” He pointed out a number of deficiencies, including the great disparities in wealth and services, concluding that the problem in Casablanca, Morocco’s economic capital, “stems mainly from governance.”King Mohammed reminded Parliament that, as he said in his first speech as sovereign in 1999, “I did not have a magic wand to solve all the problems, but would tackle all the difficulties consciously, seriously and diligently,” and he looks to the country’s leadership, at all levels, to do the same. By stressing the close ties that should exist between the parliament and locally elected officials, the King emphasized the need to implement greater decentralization and regionalization, especially the need for capacity-building at the local and regional levels “for the emergence of new regional elites who are able to handle public affairs at the local level.”

Moving the agenda forward

In short order, the King moved proactively to demonstrate the need for action. Earlier this week, he met with the Council of Ministers to adopt draft laws that will go to Parliament to implement the 2011 Constitutional reforms in three key areas:

  • The roles and responsibilities of members of government, their prerogatives, procedures, legal status, and clarification of the role of the Ministers.
  • The mandate, operations, and procedures of the Constitutional Court.
  • The scope of work, composition, and procedures for parliamentary fact-finding commissions.

The Ministers Council also approved the broad outlines of the 2014 finance bill.

While the process of evolving a parliamentary democracy comes with both obstacles and opportunities, the King’s twin roles as arbiter and visionary for the country provide a much-needed backstop and reminder that the people’s business transcends individual political parties and special interests.

By speaking candidly about the strategic partnership for governance between members of Parliament and locally elected officials, King Mohammed is encouraging politicians and officials to support, contribute to, and be part of reforms that will serve the country and secure its future.

Moroccan Elections Focus on Economic Issues

In this second in a MATIC series looking at the role of economic growth issues facing Morocco, we review the party platforms published in advance of the November 2011 elections to describe the economy as a dominate theme in the elections.

Despite the overwhelming approval of Morocco’s new constitution in July 2011 referendum, some demonstrations persisted into that fall. The focus of many of the protestors was a call for greater economic opportunities, transparency in decision-making, and jobs for the unemployed. As parliamentary elections drew nearer, these criticisms were taken up by many of the major political parties which sought to incorporate them into their own electoral campaigns.

The two political frontrunners—Istiqlal and the Justice and Development Party (PJD)—promised to take actions to reduce wealth disparity, create jobs, promote transparency, and boost development. Both parties guaranteed economic reforms focusing on unemployment, tax reform, international trade and investment, and poverty reduction. They also listed education and legal reforms as part of their economic growth strategies.

The PJD set an ambitious seven percent annual economic growth rate as its target, while Istiqlal committed to five percent, a figure consistent with the average rate from 2007 – 2011. The PJD vowed to reduce overall unemployment by two percent, which would require creation of over 200,000 jobs. Both parties promised to take actions to lower the youth unemployment rate, which had reached nearly 30 percent in the fall of 2011.

Both parties mentioned expanding The Compensation Fund, a social safety net financed by both the State and private enterprises that is primarily aimed at financing medical care and promoting education for children from poor families. Istiqlal emphasized the importance of the fund, but suggested adjusting its support base in order to minimize its impact on the budget deficit.

Both parties also promised to improve standards of living and support for the middle class. Istiqlal vowed to fund professional schools (vocational training) and close the gap in social inequalities by improving job focused education. The PJD pledged to increase the monthly minimum wage by over 25 percent, to approximately $370.

In an effort to encourage foreign and domestic investment, the PJD committed to reducing the company tax from 30 percent to 25 percent, and to cut the value added tax (VAT) from 20 to 15 percent. Abdelilah Benkirane reaffirmed his party’s commitment to encouraging international trade and investment after being sworn in as Prime Minister. “This new government has a true will for reform and we will keep all the promises we made. We will do everything to encourage foreign and domestic investment to create a climate of prosperity.”

The victory of the PJD, which captured the largest number of votes, was interpreted both as a validation of their hard work and detailed reform and growth programs as well as a repudiation of the traditional parties whose past performance did not inspire those supporting broader and continuing reforms.

With a new constitution and strong popular mandate to promote economic growth in all sectors and at all levels, the new government began drafting its program, which was presented to the Parliament for approval in early April. Our next segment will take a look inside the new budget and weigh opportunities for stimulating stronger economic performance in light of weakening European markets and projected low agricultural yields.

Sydney Upchurch contributed to the writing of this article, which originally appeared on Morocco on the Move.

Muslim voices Challenge Qualms of Islamists in Power

Representatives from Islamist parties in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Tunisia came to Washington last week to talk about the future of democracy under Islamist-led governments. They were uniformly impressive and well-prepared to challenge key concerns being voiced about Islamists in government: support for human rights, gender equality, protection of minorities, and the direction of their foreign policy priorities.

Moroccan American Center staff attended two events—a luncheon at CSIS featuring the Moroccan Minister of Communications, Mustapha Khalfi, and a day of panels at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP) that included the Communications Minister and representatives from Ennadha in Tunisia, the Freedom and Justice Party in Egypt, the Moslem Brotherhood in Jordan, Egypt, and Libya, and others.

It is not a stretch to say, based on the CSIS session that I attended, that they are quite aware of US concerns. Minister Khalfi has spent time previously in Washington and came ready to answer with details of how the new Moroccan government is facing an array of social, political, cultural, and economic issues that are the test of the new constitution and the new government.

The Minister was quite clear about how the new government intends to move forward. After recognizing the King’s role in framing the constitutional and reform process, Khalfi raised other factors that made Moroccoan exception to the upheavals in the other Arab uprisings. He mentioned the political culture of coalition-building that has been a constant in Morocco, particularly on the local level. This experience has been quite useful as the major players and issues are clear, making negotiations more transparent and to the point. Also, the role of civil society was strongly emphasized as a means for the public to mobilize to focus the attention of the Parliament and political parties on their issues.

To Khalfi, the core challenge is implementing the new constitution by concretizing legislation in a number of key areas: power-sharing; enshrining respect for the multi-dimensional Moroccan identity; reshaping the legal code to protect freedoms and liberties; proceeding with regionalization, which includes political, economic, cultural, and social issues and is the key to resolving the Western Sahara crisis; and ensuring good governance through enhanced transparency, accountability, and reform of the judicial system. The Minister said that at least 40 laws need to be passed as part of the initial implementation process.

Other issues addressed by Minister Khalfi included the importance of rebuilding public trust in the political process, the next test being the upcoming local elections; grappling with the specter of the country’s economic and social ills; re-orienting the economy away from dependence on a Europe that is in crisis; and building a strong basis for regional cooperation and stability.

The CEIP presenters were equally articulate, arguing that the real test of Islamists in power is just beginning. The final verdict will rest on how well democracy and Islam are integrated. The question is not which existing model works best; the answer is what meets the people’s expectations in each country.

This article was originally published on Morocco On The Move.

Some like it not: no emerging consensus on the new government

I returned to Rabat two months after the election that brought in a moderate Islamic party to lead the new coalition government. Having spent the last three days at a conference in Marrakech, I was astounded by the news of five young graduates who immolated themselves during a protest for jobs. When one contrasts the hopeful expectations of the participants in Marrakech with the great sadness of young people destroying themselves through some mixture of despair and recklessness, it brings into sharp focus the challenges ahead.

It is difficult to follow the news about the damaged young men without wondering how the new government will meet this severe test one day before it was scheduled to unveil its program in Parliament on Thursday. In discussions with government and opposition supporters it becomes clear that many fear there are short fuses for long-term problems such as closing employment and education deficits. The strongest asset for the new government is the mixture of old and new, professionals, technocrats, and politicians who understand that business as usual will not suffice. Even the palace, which has ensured that its representatives are in key ministries, has been taken aback by Wednesday’s dramatic actions, marking a turn from the usually peaceful demonstrations in the capital.

I spoke with former and current members of Parliament, supporters of the new government, and those who are taking a wait-and-see attitude. While there is no consensus on how it will perform, there is agreement that the immolations are a reality check on thinking that they have the time to make hard decisions. The new government seems poised to take up the challenges quickly if one follows its public statements. Having spent so much time negotiating the distribution and structure of the various ministries, there appears to be a commitment to visible results even if it requires shifting priorities away from reducing deficits and government expenditures.

While Morocco has initialed several commecial and investment agreements with Spain, the EU, and several Gulf countries over the past three months, implementation will take time. In addition, it is hard to convince graduates that after attending university they should return to less populated areas where there are jobs, many of which don’t require any kind of degree. How the government manages expectations and its relations with the palace will demonstrate quickly if the intellectual and operational leadership is there to convince Moroccans that their futures are secure and their lives will improve. No public relations campaigns will work–only results.
This article was originally published on Morocco On The Move.