Letter from Lebanon: With Lebanese President's Second Term, Democracy Suffers Severe Blow

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Letter From Lebanon: With Lebanese President's Second Term, Democracy Suffers Severe Blow

By Carole Dagher

On Nov. 24, Lebanese President Elias Hrawi begins a new term of office, renewing a presidential mandate that was supposed to end when he finished his first sixyear term. In fact, 1995 presidential "elections" mark a turning point in the history of what once was described as Lebanese democracy, where a new president was elected every six years and a new parliament every four years. Because that did not happen this time, members of the political opposition called the 1995 events a "masquerade," "a severe blow to democracy," and a "dangerous precedent."

From the beginning of the constitutional deadline for the election (a period of two months, running from Sept. 24 to Nov. 24), it was obvious that there would not be real elections. None of the would-be competing candidates actually ran for the presidency because it was said that the Syrian regime strongly favored continuation in the presidency of Hrawi (who is barred by the Lebanese constitution from succeeding himself) while peace negotiations on the Syrian-Israeli track are deadlocked.

Allowing Damascus a hand in Lebanon during the negotiations was the "regional circumstance" invoked by those who lobbied for extension of President Hrawi's term. But the Syrians did not officially endorse any such position until the last minute, thus heating up the political climate. So the election became the center of contending political calculations of the Lebanese leadership troika made up of President Hrawi, speaker of parliament Nabih Berri, and Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.

In the preliminary maneuvering, Hariri first reshaped his government and then, with his control over the council of ministers assured, pushed for an amendment of the constitution to allow an extension of President Hrawi's--and by inference his own government's--mandate.

Berri, refusing to be railroaded by the prime minister, blocked the amendment process and argued that a parliamentary majority was opposed to any change in the democratic voting procedure. Amending the constitution also was very unpopular with public opinion. Polls indicated that more than 89 percent of the Lebanese opposed any extension of the president's mandate. One of the most persistent voices against any change in the constitution was that of Monsignor Nasrallah Sfeir, head of the Maronite Church, to which the president of the Lebanese republic traditionally belongs. Monsignor Sfeir emphasized in his regular Sunday sermons the constitutional requirement for a true presidential election through a free parliamentary vote. …