By Ghassan Karam
Quick, can you name the presidents of the following countries: Germany, Italy, Turkey, Iraq, Israel and Lebanon? Don’t feel bad if you could not name any, besides Suleiman of Lebanon, since very few people know who these individuals are and for a good reason. In parliamentary systems the head of state, a president in republics and a King in monarchies, is merely a figure head. Presidents are symbols who perform ceremonial functions but play no role in the actual decision making of the government.
Lebanon has been effectively transformed from a Presidential system, similar to that of the US, Russia and France, into a parliamentary system but someone has forgotten to tell the Lebanese about that. The daily news media, both print and TV, insist on showing the comings and goings of the president and cover his every move and utterance when in fact he has no executive or legislative power of any capacity.
Obviously the legislative power resides in the 128 members of the Chamber of Deputies and the Prime Minister heads the council of Ministers where the executive power lies. Although the president names a Prime Minister to form the cabinet he is bound by the results of the consultations that he holds with the MP’s. The cabinet once formed needs to gain the support of the Chamber of Deputies otherwise it will have to be dissolved. The president cannot on his own initiative dissolve the cabinet neither can he object to or veto the decision by the Chamber of Deputies.
If the President has no executive power, cannot appoint his Prime Minister, is not allowed to dissolve the cabinet or to introduce laws then what can he do? The Presidential prerogatives are limited to 3 areas:
(1) He is the commander in chief which could at times of national emergencies be an important function but not when private militias are stronger than the official armed forces.
(2) Foreign ambassadors present their credentials to the president
(3) The president is allowed to issue pardons by Decree
There is nothing wrong in having a parliamentary system of governance but what is strange is when both the public and the government officials insist on pretending that this is not the case. It is difficult to believe that MP’s and cabinet members are not aware of the severe constitutional limitations on the power of the presidency which then begs the question why the pretence? The only possible answer to this question rests on the sectarian divide that the country uses for the allocation of its political offices. Technically the Shia community gets to control the legislative branch through the position of the speaker, the Sunni community takes control of the executive side through the Prime Minister and the Maronites get a figurehead although no one wants to call it that.
Well, the emperor has no clothes. Lebanon has a parliamentarian system of government and the president performs only ceremonial functions. Let’s get used to that and stop treating this office as being what it is not. Enough meaningless stories about what president Suleiman did or did not do. Let us tell it like it is. A dynamic democracy can thrive and do well under parliamentary governance. What is egregiously wrong with the Lebanese system is the sectarian allocation of governmental positions in a totally unconstitutional manner.