Lebanon's political system sinks nation into debt

BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanese politicians are looking for tens of millions of dollars in aid at a Paris conference on Wednesday with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and world diplomats to help their country cope with a flood of refugees from neighboring Syria's civil war. But while authorities plead for cash, Lebanon's house is hardly in order.

Despite a mounting humanitarian crisis brought on by over a million Syrian refugees and a ballooning debt of $60 billion — one of the highest in the world compared to gross domestic product — there is little sign of reform for the collapsing economy in a country where a dysfunctional democracy has been marred by nepotism, corruption, and warlord-style governance ever since the 15-year civil war ended in 1990.

There is hardly any urgency among the country's lawmakers and politicians, who took nearly a year to agree on a new government after the prime minister resigned last March. The parliament, which seldom convenes, has not voted on a budget for eight years, letting the Cabinet simply write its own. Lawmakers have never met to discuss government policies to deal with the refugee influx that has strained social services including education, health and electricity to their limit.

Still, lawmakers manage to award themselves rising salaries and perks that extend long after they retire or die. Rather than legislating, parliament members act primarily as service providers to a narrow group of people, based on their sect and family affiliation, not the public at large.

"We are an oligarchy, not a democracy," said Ghassan Moukheiber, a Christian lawmaker from central Lebanon.

Although Lebanon is often cited as a rare example of democracy in an autocratic Arab world, key decisions are made outside of the parliament and even the government. They are in the hands of a small group of people who gained political power because of immense wealth or by commanding a powerful militia during the civil war that was largely fought between the country's Christian and Muslim sects, Moukheiber said.

The country's sectarian-based political system is enshrined in the power-sharing agreement that ended the civil war. According to the Taif Accord, the parliament and Cabinet must be half Muslim and half Christian. An unwritten agreement reached after Lebanon's independence in 1943 ensures that the president is a Christian, the prime minister is a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament is a Shiite Muslim.

Defenders of this system say it is the only way that 4.5 million people from 18 recognized sects can co-exist. Critics say it perpetuates nepotism and the power of warlords, many of whom have become government ministers, lawmakers and leaders of political parties with well-known sectarian affiliations.

"They don't like the institutions such as the parliament meeting too often and competing with them in running the country," Moukheiber said.

Indeed, most lawmakers stay away from the imposing 1930s parliament building in downtown Beirut.

Since the current parliament of 128 lawmakers was elected in June 2009, the lawmakers have met 21 times — an average of 4 times a year. They passed 169 laws, many of them related to raising government and civil servants' salaries, receiving foreign aid and amending the election law, according to data collected by Information International, a Lebanese policy research institute in Beirut.

There is no national health care plan and no nationwide electricity grid, because lawmakers are buying personal loyalty with state funds, said Sami Atallah, the head of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies that has been monitoring and documenting governance in Lebanon.

Many lawmakers run profitable businesses alongside their parliamentary positions. Many make millions in construction and real estate. They own shopping malls, apartment buildings, nightclubs and receive a cut from monopolies on telecommunications, gas, cigarettes and other commodities.

In 2013, lawmakers met only twice and passed two laws. One of them was to extend their mandate for 18 months, pushing back elections.

On Wednesday, Lebanon's leaders will meet with Kerry, international diplomats and bankers seeking help. The International Support Group for Lebanon was created in September, when Kerry pledged more than $100 million in American aid for Lebanese communities that are hosting Syrians who have fled their homeland.

It's a fraction of the money Lebanon needs.

"International donors are not going to compensate Lebanon for lost economic activity due to the war in Syria, no matter how significant they may be," said Ayham Kamel, an analyst with the Eurasia group in London.

The last time Lebanese parliament ratified the budget set by the government — at 10 billion Lebanese liras ($6.8 billion dollars) — was in 2005. Due to political bickering between the two major political blocs, lawmakers have not voted on the budget since then. In the past two years, the government did not even bother sending the budget to the parliament. It simply doubled the amount of the 2005 for the budget — a flagrant violation of the constitution.

Once elected, members of parliament get a monthly salary of $7,400, fully paid health insurance, tax exemptions on a vehicle and four policemen each on full government salary. Other perks include airplane tickets, a diplomatic passport for the lawmakers and their families and a pension of up to 75 percent of the salaries, which is transferred to their spouses after their death.

The pensions of the 310 retired lawmakers and the spouses of 103 deceased ones alone chip $20 million annually from the budget.

There's hardly any outrage in public. Although there were small protests against the extension of the mandate of the current parliament last year, most Lebanese are resigned to the warlord-style governance.

A handful of parliament members who take their jobs seriously say the salaries barely cover their expenses, much less support their families.

"If we were paid for passing laws only, they'd be high," said Kazem Kheir, a Sunni Muslim lawmaker from the north. He said most of his days are spent working in the community, solving problems for people, finding them jobs, often settling their hospital bills, driving from one house to another to attending funerals and other social functions.

"The salary is hardly enough to fill my car with gas every month," Kheir said.


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