Despite media warnings of a political vacuum in Lebanon following the resignation of Prime Minister Najib Mikati of Lebanon, many Lebanese politicians seem more relieved than worried. Although the government’s collapse does indeed raise the risk of destabilization as Lebanon grapples with the spillover effect of Syria’s war, the country’s current crisis is better described as an institutional drift that has created room for political maneuvering in an otherwise intractable environment. It is possible that the current political jockeying may actually ease the deadlock that has beset Lebanese institutions, allowing for an agreement on key issues. But Lebanon’s political players are also eager to exploit the shakeup, and extract concessions from and weaken their rivals; parties will likely see little incentive to compromise on issues of importance, leaving the fate of the government and upcoming parliamentary elections in the balance.

Lebanon’s long-running political crisis, pitting the March 8 coalition led by the Shia party Hezbollah against the Sunni-led March 14 coalition, with Mikati somewhere in the middle, deepened following his resignation on March 22. The proximate causes centered on fierce debate over electoral reform ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for June 2013. The current electoral system (known as the 1960 law) is supported by Sunnis and empowers Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, whom the March 14 coalition is trying to woo into a parliamentary alliance. The March 8 coalition opposes the status quo and has insisted on an alternative known as the Orthodox Law, which is popular among Christians from both coalitions but controversial for its strictly sectarian-based system. Although several hybrid laws combining elements from both proposals have been put forward, all parties have taken uncompromising positions and clashed when Mikati attempted to continue with electoral preparations.

The second disagreement leading to Mikati’s resignation was symptomatic of rising (and increasingly militarized) Sunni-Shia tensions in Lebanon fueled by the war in neighboring Syria. Mikati sought to extend the tenure of prominent Sunni chief of the Internal Security Forces (ISF), General Ashraf Rifi, but was blocked by March 8 cabinet members who perceive the ISF to be a hostile, Sunni-dominated institution.

Although parliamentary consultations scheduled for April 5 and 6 are ostensibly aimed at naming a new prime minister, the real agenda is hardly limited to that issue alone. The session and the backroom machinations leading up to it will focus on the electoral law, the position of any new cabinet on Hezbollah’s right to maintain its militia, the mandate and length of the cabinet’s term, and which Sunni figure can realistically secure a majority in order to assume the post of PM (which must be held by a Sunni according to Lebanon’s National Pact, a post-independence power sharing agreement). Lebanon’s senior political leaders, or zuama, are essentially deciding which elements of a political agreement are up for compromise, and which are nonnegotiable. The specific identity of the prime minister is less important and contentious than the other issues, and there already appears to be a consensus emerging around the nomination of Tammam Salam, a relatively weak and uncontroversial figure.

The March 14 coalition, in particular the Sunni Future Movement, is pushing for a neutral government with a temporary mandate limited to holding elections in June under the 1960 law (or, more realistically, a modified version of it) that facilitated its parliamentary majority in 2009. March 14 is also using the cabinet collapse to demand that the people-army-resistance clause in the ministerial statement (which sanctions Hezbollah’s weapons arsenal and which all recent cabinets have adopted) be dropped from any future government policy statement. Walid Jumblatt’s bloc is also pushing for elections in June, as he benefits heavily from the 1960 law, and has already submitted a list of his party’s parliamentary candidates.

In contrast, the March 8 coalition is insisting on a national salvation government—a partisan cabinet comprising all factions and enjoying a broad mandate. This is probably Hezbollah’s best chance at ensuring that any cabinet explicitly supports its military autonomy regardless of whether elections are held on time, and includes its most important ally, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) led by prominent Christian leader Michel Aoun. Unlike other factions, Hezbollah is far less concerned with the electoral law issue, which poses little threat to its power base anyway, than with securing political and legal cover for its weapons, empowering its Christian partners, and keeping its Lebanese Sunni rivals in check while its own allies in Syria fight a Sunni-led rebellion.

Further complicating the negotiations, Aoun and the FPM unlike their Hezbollah allies, are indeed focused on the electoral law. Aoun claims the FPM’s cooperation in nominating a prime minister is conditional on the passage of the Orthodox Law, and has vowed to boycott the upcoming consultations unless parliament is convened to vote on the law. The FPM has said it will not lend support to a prime minister’s nomination for free, a particularly clear acknowledgement that the zuama are using the political crisis to extort one another, and that the identity of the prime minister is not in itself the main issue at stake.

It is possible that political factions may agree on a prime minister, electoral law, and ministerial statement as a package deal. In this case, Lebanon’s institutions would play their traditional role as rubber stamps for political decisions made outside of them, and indeed in their absence. This would entail relatively smooth parliamentary consultations, a parliamentary vote on an electoral law, and the appointment of a cabinet. If the impasse can be resolved so cleanly, Lebanon could move towards parliamentary elections. However, such a smooth outcome is unlikely and negotiations will probably not result in a decisive policy shift on contentious issues. Lebanon’s factions have a habit of ignoring the formal political process when it yields results that threaten their key interests, resorting instead to street protests, parliamentary and cabinet boycotts, and general obstructionism.

If political powers fail to reach an agreement during talks, this may leave Lebanon in the hands of a temporary caretaker government and will almost certainly delay elections. In this scenario, the mandate of the parliament might also be extended and all of the issues currently paralyzing the policymaking process in Lebanon would simply be kicked further down the line. Essentially, Lebanon is already in this situation and has been for the past two years, as rival factions have adopted a wait-and-see approach to the outcome of fighting in Syria, whose politics impact profoundly on the balance of power in Lebanon. Lebanon’s bureaucracy would muddle through, but its economy would come under increasing pressure as key sectors remained weak and growth sluggish.

Ultimately, the outcome of parliamentary consultations boils down to a question of political will; Lebanon’s factions can find a political solution, regardless of institutional snags, if it suits their interests in a tenuous geopolitical context. However, neither March 14 nor March 8 has a strong incentive to strike a grand bargain at this moment. March 14 is biding its time in hopes that the ongoing conflict in Syria will continue to strategically weaken Hezbollah, making the coalition better placed to reassert itself politically down the road. March 8 retains its dominance with or without institutional support or representation by virtue of Hezbollah’s military superiority, and its attention is obviously fixed on the fight in Syria. March 8 sees no need for a compromise, and March 14 has little leverage to force one. Perhaps most worrying is that with or without a parliament or functioning cabinet, Lebanon’s political fate will be held hostage to the outcome of fighting in Syria, rather than the specific composition of its formal institutions.

Faysal Itani is a fellow and Sarah Grebowski is a research assistant with the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council.

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