Little things count, like speed limits and Cabinet stability
Could you imagine a newly elected Australian Prime Minister taking five months to form a Cabinet?
In our functioning democracy the notion is hard to fathom but that is exactly what has just transpired in Lebanon.
Saad Hariri led the pro-western March 14 alliance to an emphatic electoral win back in June but not until now has he been able to form a Government.
Hezbollah and its Shia supporters make up an estimated 35-40% of the Lebanese population. Hezbollah (a listed terrorist organisation in Australia) and its allies were soundly defeated at the election but under the Lebanese ‘confessional’ system of Government, they still have a claim for representation around the Cabinet table.
Just imagine Nick Minchin across the Cabinet table from Peter Garrett discussing the Emissions Trading Scheme.
Take the philosophical differences between those men and add sectarian divides and animosities so complex and ancient that the Cabinet is forever a patchwork of alliances based on foundations that can collapse in an instant.
Prime Minister Hariri took five months to achieve that balancing act and the final outcome provides significant clout to the Hezbollah-led Opposition, including 10 seats around the 30 member Cabinet table and an effective veto on Government decisions.
The outcome is unlikely to ease tensions beyond its southern border with Israel. This is particularly so given the interception by Israeli commandos last week of 500 tonnes of weapons aboard a ship bound for Syria. Israel says the arms were destined for Hezbollah.
The Israeli Army’s Chief of Staff has warned the Shia militants now have missiles that can reach Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. This raises the stakes even further particularly given Hezbollah incursions during the 2006 war were restricted to northern Israel.
An Israeli pre-emptive strike to hit that capability would unlikely be restricted to simply Hezbollah territory. During the last war the IDF hit bridges and infrastructure right up the coast in areas well outside the Shia territory.
I was in Lebanon in August and the Cabinet stalemate dominated the news. The many supporters of the March 14 Alliance that I spoke to, blame Hezbollah just as much as they do Israel for the damage done to their country back in 2006.
While not happy about having to make substantial concessions to form a Government despite a clear cut electoral win, they are in large part resigned to the fact that the Hezbollah militia is so much better equipped than the Lebanese army that they simply have to bring them inside the tent.
But it is a compromise that has a bitter taste for hundreds of thousands of Christians and Sunni Muslims among others and any further pre-emptive attack by Israel would rattle the ‘unity’ government to its core.
Living in a country so precariously balanced creates an urgency in day to day life that you don’t often see in Australia or other western countries.
Lebanese roads reflect that.
Driving out of Beirut with a friend a BMW flew past at well over 200km/h and I remarked at how I was perpetually nervous on the road in Lebanon, with seemingly no rules or enforced speed limits.
He replied, “Forget America or Australia, this is democracy. Freedom, democracy chaos. If you want to kill yourself, kill yourself.”
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