Can more provinces fix Lebanon’s problems?
Experts suggest form of decentralization to help addresss administrative stresses
BEIRUT: Lebanon’s map may be about to change.
That’s good news for the residents of Kesrouan and Jbeil. Last month, Parliament passed a bill making those two districts a new province – meaning sometime in the future, residents might not need to travel all the way down to Baabda for many administrative services, a blessing for anyone who’s battled the constant, miserable traffic on the highway north of Beirut.
This is the reason Neamatallah Abi Nasr, the measure’s sponsor and a Kesrouan MP with the Free Patriotic Movement, gives for his bill: making people’s lives easier.
“[There’s a lot of people] who want services from the state,” Abi Nasr says. “If you want to get an educational certificate certified, you have to go to Baabda, the center of the Mount Lebanon province . ... Every day there’s around 1,500 to 2,000 cars that make a trip to Baabda, whether for court cases or for an engineer to get a permit approved, or if you want to pay taxes, or if you want a certificate that you have a clean financial record. This creates traffic; people are late. You waste a day and then you have to come back the next day.”
In other words, it’s no wonder the measure appears relatively uncontroversial, even in a Parliament often deadlocked over the smallest of issues: MPs from the Future Movement, Speaker Nabih Berri’s Development and Liberation bloc and the major Christian blocs approved of the measure.
But questions linger over the cost, constitutionality and wisdom of the move. Abi Nasr wasn’t able to provide an estimate for the cost, but assured The Daily Star that “it won’t cost much.”
Andre Sleiman, a decentralization and local governance consultant, ballparks the figure at at least half a million dollars per year.
“First, you need a headquarters, premises ... you rent it or build it or buy it, let alone the logistics and the running costs that go along with it. Then you have to hire a governor, and he has security and bodyguards and benefits,” he says. “And then he has to have a staff.”
A more pressing concern for some MPs was the bill’s constitutionality, according to a report from Ad-Diyar. During parliamentary debate, Nouhad Machnouk, the interior minister and a Beirut MP for the Future Movement, questioned whether the bill violates Article 65 of the Constitution, which requires two-thirds of the Cabinet to approve any changes to administrative divisions.
Other MPs poo-pooed Machnouk’s suggestion, with Berri saying, “This is not an issue about the text, it’s an issue about the implementation of the text.”
Indeed, assuming President Michel Aoun, himself a former Kesrouan MP, has signed the bill into law – and Abi Nasr tells The Daily Star he already has – implementation will fall to the Cabinet, meaning there are still several obstacles that will keep Kesrouanis and Jbeilis on the road to Baabda for the foreseeable future
In Sleiman’s eyes, a larger reform effort is needed. “It would have been better if we had fully revised the redistricting of the country. That could entail revising the number – and borders – of the districts; perhaps even deleting districts altogether against increasing the number of provinces . ... [The creation of a Kesrouan -Jbeil province] is a bit too random – it’s a very ad hoc measure.”
Sleiman points to the creation of two new provinces in 2003 – Akkar and Baalbeck-Hermel – and the current push for Kesrouan-Jbeil as evidence of an unfortunate trend.
“There’s a big misconception in Lebanon that if you want to improve democracy, you put the central government close to the people” instead of giving them power through locally elected officials. Provinces have no locally elected officials in Lebanon; they are fully controlled by the national government.
While Abi Nasr calls his bill decentralization – “lamarkazia,” a recent cause celebre among Lebanese policy circles – Sleiman says, “Decentralization is when you have an [elected] local council that enjoys a degree of autonomy toward the central government.
“This is de-concentration, not decentralization, whereby the governor is appointed by the Cabinet and abides by the instructions of the ministries, which they represent.”
Sleiman’s worry over the ad hoc nature of creating a new province may have a solid basis. As per AdDiyar’s report, during the debate in Parliament last month, Aley MP Akram Chehayeb said, “We demand a province for Chouf and Aley.”
The evolution of Lebanon’s provinces over the years.