Thu, Feb 17, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Perhaps Beirut can show the way for Baghdad

Lebanon may provide a guide for those Iraqis who seek a constitution that can reconcile the country's Shiite, Sunni, Kurdish and Turkmen communities

By Paul Salem

Rebuilding a country devastated by war, riven by internal divisions, and plagued by foreign intervention in a part of the world as volatile as the Middle East is one of the most daunting tasks imaginable. Add to it a desire to create a democracy from scratch in a region characterized by authoritarian government and that task becomes almost impossible. But the challenge has been met before, in Lebanon after its nightmarishly long civil war (1975 to 1990). So perhaps there are lessons from that experience that can be applied in Iraq.

Both Lebanon and Iraq comprise ancient communities living within the borders of states outlined in the 20th century. Although a strong sense of modern nationalism exists in both, ancient ethnic and religious communities play a critical role in shaping political identities and public life.

Both countries also possess a fairly educated middle class and intelligentsia alongside more traditional elites. Both societies have a mixed history that included periods of peaceful, cooperative politics and periods of violence and bloodletting.

One lesson from Lebanon's recent history stands out above all others: In divided political societies such as Lebanon and Iraq, coalition democracy is preferable to majoritarian winner-takes-all democracy. In Lebanon, the danger of one community monopolizing power over others is avoided because the Lebanese constitution imposes permanent power-sharing arrangements on all major communities. These arrangements apply both to parliament and the executive branch.

In Lebanon's post-war parliament, seats are widely distributed among the various confessional communities, so that none feels excluded or fears losing political representation if it loses numerical superiority. In the executive branch, the council of ministers is balanced among Christians and Muslims in order to encourage, indeed force, cooperation and to avoid the risk of domination and the fear of oppression by one group.

In addition, the three major posts in government -- the president of the republic, the prime minister, and the speaker of parliament -- are counterbalanced in power and are also divided among the three largest communities. Moreover, coexistence and cooperation among the various communities is enshrined as a basic principle in Lebanon's constitution. Promoting any policy or law that increases communal tension is unconstitutional.

In Iraq, some of these steps have already been taken. The Governing Council and the interim government are both coalition bodies of the Lebanese type, comprising studied proportions from the three main communities in Iraq -- the Shiites, the Sunnis and the Kurds. Iraq, however, still has neither a parliament nor a constitution.

With regard to parliament, there is no need to follow Lebanon's rigid apportionment of seats according to confessional identity. All the same, Iraq's parliamentary electoral law should be drawn up to take two important factors into account:

First, districts should be drawn to ensure that all major communities in the country are amply represented in parliament and none feels left out.

Second, electoral districts should be multi-member districts and should, as far as is possible, include populations of more than one community in order to encourage cross-communal politics and the election of moderate politicians that can speak to all communities and that know how to resolve tensions among them.

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