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Seamless Transition of New Zealand’s Leadership Highlights Failure of Lebanese Democracy

Teriza Mir | Middle East and North Africa Fellow

Image credit: rabiem22 via Flickr

There was a mere six-day turnaround between former New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announcing her resignation on January 18 and the swearing in of Chris Hipkins to replace her on January 24. In contrast, March 1 marked four months since the departure of Lebanon's most recent President, General Michel Aoun, with the nation's parliament still yet to elect his successor. As both countries struggle through domestic crises–New Zealand's historic cost of living and environmental crises, and in Lebanon a complete societal collapse–the respective success and failure of each government to uphold the basic foundations of democracy highlights the political roots of Lebanon's problems and, in turn, the political obstacles to its solutions.

Lebanon and New Zealand are both parliamentary democracies, the former being a republic and the latter a constitutional monarchy. New Zealand’s Prime Minister is the leader of the political party in power, and leadership is determined through an internal party vote. Lebanon's President is instead elected separately from its government. Rather than coming to power based on the results of the general public election, the nation's 128 parliamentarians must reach a two-thirds majority to elect a new head of state every six years.

Although New Zealand's is an arguably simpler process than the Lebanese system, since the adoption of Lebanon's constitution in 1926 there have been only three previous instances of an untimely transition between presidents. In 2016, the now outgoing President Michel Aoun was elected following a two-and-a-half-year vacuum; in 2008, Aoun's predecessor, Michel Suleiman, came to office six months later than scheduled, and only though foreign mediation; and in 1988, concerns about Syrian interference in the voting process prompted President Amine Gemayel to appoint a transitionary Military Council to succeed him. Even the assassinations of President-elect Bachir Gemayel in 1982 and President Rene Moawad in 1989 did not cause vacancies, with new leaders being decided upon within days.

Vested interests within the political and institutional elite have gone unchecked for decades, leading to a present-day government that is more dysfunctional than those of its fifteen-year civil war. The inefficiencies in Lebanon's electricity sector, and the stagnation of the investigation into the 2020 Beirut Port Explosion exemplify these allegations of corruption.

Electricity in Lebanon has not been consistently available since the 1975-1990 civil war. Blackouts are common, unpredictable, and in parts of the country can last for almost twenty-four hours, with some homes only receiving thirty minutes of electricity per day. Many homes and businesses have private generators to compensate for this, however there is not enough fuel in the country to maintain a 24/7 electricity supply for all residents. Instead, disillusioned by decades of state inaction and empty promises, Lebanese people are gravitating towards self-managed solar power grids to secure their own constant electricity source.

On August 4 2020, 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored in a warehouse in the bustling port of Beirut exploded. It was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history, killing at least 226 people (a figure that continues to rise), leaving over 300,000 homeless, and damaging property ten kilometres away. A domestic judicial investigation was launched immediately following the blast and remains underway nearly three years later. The case has been plagued by complaints lodged against its presiding judges by politicians that have been criminally implicated in the explosion. These delays are concerning not only because they postpone justice for the explosion's victims, but because what remains of the Port continues to deteriorate, and potentially crucial evidence is being lost to fires and sections of the ruined silos collapsing.

After a thirteen-month hiatus and multiple protests and petitions, the investigation officially resumed on January 16 this year. However, a British court has been the first to make a judicial ruling about the case. On January 31 2023, the London High Court found that Savaro Ltd., a British chemical trading company responsible for the shipment of ammonium nitrate that caused the explosion, knew of its storage in the Beirut Port for eight years, and took no clear action to remove it. It will be ordered to pay compensation to the explosion's victims and their families.

The need to set aside politics to protect basic human rights has never been greater for Lebanon, as it limps through its third year of a crippling social, economic and environmental crisis. Since October 2019, the Lebanese lira has lost over 90 per cent of its value. Stagnant wages mean that people can no longer afford bread, fuel or even calls to emergency services. The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia found that 82 per cent of people in Lebanon were living in multidimensional poverty in 2021, and conditions have only worsened since then.

Lebanon is in desperate need of a leader to take decisive action and put the nation on a path towards stabilisation and growth.

Many such paths already exist. In April 2022, the International Monetary Fund formulated a $3 billion USD bailout agreement with the Lebanese authorities, subject to the latter implementing critical reforms prior to receiving any funds. These reforms have not been enacted. In July 2022, Lebanese banker and financial expert Nicholas Chikhani published a roadmap to alleviating the economic crisis, though this too has fallen on deaf ears at the nation's executive. It is not that Lebanon is lacking opportunities to resolve its ever-worsening crisis, simply that its leaders are unwilling to pursue them.

Jacinda Ardern gave the NZ Labour Party just shy of three weeks to complete the country's leadership transition. It took less than one. Such decisive action conveys a prioritisation of basic government function over political games. For a country facing a crisis, this is especially important, and conversely especially damning when it does not occur.

With New Zealand's next general election scheduled for October this year, we can only hope that Lebanon decides on any leader, let alone a competent one, before New Zealand democratically elects yet another.

Teriza Mir is the Middle East and North Africa Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.


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