February 2, 2012 - In the News
Make Parliament bigger, says popular blogger Elias Muhanna
Appeared in The Daily Star, February 2, 2012
By Stephen Dockery
BEIRUT: Known for his blog Qifa Nabki on Lebanese politics, Elias Muhanna is in the middle of a year-long study to find out if adding a senate to the legislature could ease some of the country’s political woes.
Muhanna is talking to Lebanese politicians about the viability of such a project, and looking at other nations that have used a bicameral legislature to ease tensions from a population with deep divides. His research and findings are expected to be complete by the beginning of the summer.
He spoke with The Daily Star about what adding a senate in the country would mean, and how far it could go in fixing deep governance issues that have many people disenchanted with politics altogether.
Q: How did you get interested in this project?
A: I’ve always been a political junkie and interested in Lebanese politics, and I’ve had this vague idea that this is something that Lebanon should explore, the solution to a lot of its governance problems.
This is actually a very old idea. It’s been around for a long time. Lebanon actually had a senate during the French Mandate. During the mandate period it only lasted a year but it has had this bicameral experience very early on in 1926 and then it was disbanded. So then you get the first republic in 1943 and then you get the second republic with Taif that actually calls for the creation of the senate that is supposed to coincide with the adoption of an electoral law that is non-confessional.
Q: Is this strictly an academic exercise or could a senate really be created from your work?
A: It’s very much an academic study at this point, but having said that I have been speaking to politicians and civil society people about the idea ... The first phase of the project is really an exploratory phase to see what people think of when they talk about the senate: Do they advocate for it or do they argue against it? The idea is just to get something down on paper on this project, to bring everything that has already been done into one place.
Q: So what are the benefits of adding a senate in Lebanon?
A: The classical benefits are in a country like Lebanon where you have minorities that are construed as confessional, you have a weak center and communities that are concerned about the loss of their freedoms, their ways of life. The idea is that the senate provides a check against all of that. You basically open up the Parliament so that it’s one person one vote so it’s equal suffrage across the country. You don’t have quotas for the various communities and that becomes the main legislative body charged with the general business of government.
Anything that bares on confessional issues ... those things have to be passed through the senate as well. So that way every community no matter how small has a say in the affairs and destiny of the country.
Q: Exactly how far can adding a senate go to fixing he country’s problems?
A: In the case of the senate it’s not a question of we just need to add a new legislative body and then everything works, it’s not an additive process, it’s actually a subtractive process.
You have to dismantle what already exists and build something completely new. It’s not: “We already have a Parliament, let’s just add a senate now and then everything will work.” That’s actually not the case.
What you have to do is rebuild the entire system from scratch, what you need is a whole new Parliament, basically with new rules of election, new powers. You have to redefine the balance of powers between the legislative and executive branches, we have to empower the judiciary.
There’s a million questions. If you have a senate how do you elect it? Are the members elected or appointed? One question that always comes up is how is it composed? ... The devil is completely in the details.
When you are dealing with a problem so knotty and complex like that it’s very intimidating and you don’t know where to begin. It’s a very tough thing to do. At some point you have to put your foot down and start somewhere and see where that takes us ... I have no idea how effective something like this will be, but that’s part of the project.
Q: Some people have given up hope over the government all together. Why do you think things can be fixed?
A: There is this view out there that Lebanon is the most screwed of Arab countries because “it’s not a true nation and the Lebanese are just a constellation of tribes and communities that don’t really have anything in common and don’t want to form a country.” But I think many of these things that people think which are negative are actually very positive things.
I’m actually very optimistic about Lebanon and I think that the divisions that do exist are actually very healthy in the sense that we do have competing centers of power, we have different articulations that compete over what it means to be Lebanese. I think that’s really healthy because you don’t have one center that’s imposing its writ.