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Delays in cabinet formation undermine Hariri's standing.

Byline: Michael Bluhm

Summary: <p>The failure to form a cabinet is undermining the political standing of Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri and President Michel Sleiman, while Syria stands as perhaps the only actor poised to profit from the ongoing government vacuum, a number of analysts toldAa The Daily Star Aaon Friday.AaAlmost three months have elapsed since the Hariri-led March 14.



PRAGUE/BEIRUT: The failure to form a cabinet is undermining the political standing of Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri and President Michel Sleiman, while Syria stands as perhaps the only actor poised to profit from the ongoing government vacuum, a number of analysts told The Daily Star on Friday.AaAlmost three months have elapsed since the Hariri-led March 14 coalition scored an unexpectedly comfortable victory over the Syria-backed March 8 alliance in the June 7 general elections. However, said Paul Salem, head of the Carnegie Middle East Center, Hariri's election success soon dissolved among problems not of Hariri's making: the unceasing polarization between the rival political camps led Hariri to accept the 15-10-5 formula for the distribution of ministerial posts, and former March 14 stalwart Walid Jumblatt announced he was terminating his Progressive Socialist Party's relationship with the March 14 bloc.Aa

Hariri "came out looking pretty powerful after winning the elections C* and then ran into all kinds of trouble," Salem said. "It doesn't reflect well on him." The agonizing months of being unable to cobble together a cabinet have left the entire March 14 coalition "shaken and "dispirited," Salem added.Aa

As many have come to portray the cabinet-formation deadlock as a stalemate over portfolios and ministers bet-ween Hariri, a Sunni, and Free Patriotic Movement head MP Michel Aoun, a Maronite, the prime minister-designate could also find himself losing support among March 14's Christian constituents, said former Ambassador Abdullah Bou Habib, executive director of the Issam Fares Center for Lebanon, a non-partisan think tank.Aa

Conversely, Hariri's fumbling through months of an executive vacuum is burnishing the reputation of caretaker Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, who has led the government through the tumultuous years since 2006, said political analyst Omayma Abdel-Latif.Aa

"The only person that's benefiting from this is Fouad Siniora," she said. "It's really giving him the status of a statesman who was able to steer the country in really hard times."Aa

The protracted cabinet talks, on the other hand, are "really sort of undermining [Hariri's] status as a politician," she added. "It's definitely not helping him to launch his career."Aa

In the end, Hariri will likely complete a cabinet line-up and then his status will rest primarily on his work heading a cabinet, not on his difficulties creating it, said Salem.

"In the short term [the delays] make Saad Hariri appear weaker, but if he makes it, he'll be judged on other things," Salem added.Aa

At the same time, the inability to form a government is also eroding Sleiman's preferred image as a figure who can mediate between Lebanon's polarized factions and achieve consensus, the analysts said.Aa

"Neither he nor Saad Hariri are being able to put the damn thing together," Salem said, adding that "his attempt to mediate between Hariri and Aoun got nowhere."Aa

As the process drags on, many have begun to believe that Sleiman lacks the ability to pull off a breakthrough between the longstanding hostile political camps, said Abdel-Latif.Aa

The absence of a new cabinet further weakens Sleiman by depriving him of some of his constitutional prerogatives, said Hilal Khashan, head of the department of political studies and public administration at the American University of Beirut.Aa

"It is a setback for him to be a president without a cabinet," Khashan said. "The inability to form a cabinet will reflect negatively on the president himself."Aa

On the other side of the political divide, March 8 leader Hizbullah is also not benefiting from the power vacuum, the analysts said.Aa

Even though Hizbullah appears at the very least not to be dissuading Aoun from his cabinet demands, the Shiite group clearly desires a new cabinet including Hizbullah representation, said Khashan. Membership in the government gives Hizbullah added legitimacy and the appearance of a united front with its government partners against Hizbullah's foes, Khashan added.Aa

"Hizbullah is eager to have the cabinet formed," he said. "Hizbullah wants the cabinet to be formed, and they want to be an integral part. They want to be part of the political system, should a war start."Aa

Maybe the only party gaining from the stalled government talks is Syria, as Damascus wishes the Lebanese to appear as unable to rule themselves and in need of regional intervention, the analysts said.Aa

"The Syrians have a vested interest at all times to show that Lebanon is not viable," Kha-shan said.Aa

"It serves the Syrians to show Lebanon as a weak country. Their policies since 1950, when they closed the border, have been aimed at weakening the local government in Lebanon."Aa

Syria is also engaged in a growing rapprochement with Saudi Arabia, France and the US, and it might also benefit from the cabinet-formation difficulties by presenting itself to its suitors as the lone actor capable of facilitating the creation of a new government, Khashan added. Bou Habib, however, said he questioned whether Damascus could follow through on such a promise, as Syria might not be able to get its way with Aoun, who as head of the Lebanese Armed Forces led an abortive war of liberation against Syria in 1990-91.Aa

In any case, Syria does seem to be angling to wring more concessions from its interlocutors by both from the problems in forming a government and then from the cabinet's eventual formation, said Salem.Aa

"Given that they hold a lot of the cards, they are making some gains by complicating the process," he said. "They will be part of the solution. They make gains both ways."Aa

In Lebanon, however, the various political actors -- not to mention the country's inhabitants -- will likely be able only to extract small tactical profits from the seemingly endless cabinet negotiations, with no side capable of making significant strategic gains, Khashan said. "If the cabinet is delayed, then everyone is a loser," he added.

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Date:Sep 5, 2009
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