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June 2, 2009


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Background: Lebanon's confessional political system

BEIRUT Since gaining independence from France 66 years ago, Lebanon has been governed by a confessional system which attempts - and doesn't always succeed - in sharing power between the faiths in the only Arab country with a Christian head of state.

The country, which today has a two-thirds Muslim population, was first ruled under the National Pact, an unwritten agreement which laid the foundations of modern Lebanon, with a power-sharing system that apportioned political power along religious lines.

Before the Lebanese civil war that raged between 1975 and 1990, the seats in parliament were divided on a 6-to-5 ratio respectively between Christian and Muslim communities.

But in 1989, under the Saudi-sponsored Taif Accord which ended the civil war, the distribution of the seats in parliament was changed.

The 6-to-5 ratio of parliamentary seats, which had previously favoured the Christians, was replaced by the principle of parity between Muslims and Christians. Accordingly, nine new Muslim seats were added to the Chamber, creating a 54-54 seat balance.

The Taif Accord also distributed the country's offices of state along religious lines, with the president being a Maronite Christian; the prime minister, a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of parliament, a Shiite Muslim.

The Taif Accord shifted executive authority from the Maronite president to the cabinet, thereby increasing the powers of the Sunni prime minister. This represents perhaps the most important modification to the confessional system in that it increases the representation for the Muslim majority in Lebanon.

The Taif Accord elevated the status of the Chamber of Deputies at the expense of the president. Specifically, it stipulated that the nomination of the prime minister by the president would require binding parliamentary consultations.

The Lebanese parliament is elected every four years. Most deputies who are elected do not represent political parties as is the case in Western-style parliaments. Political blocs are usually based on confessional and local interests or on personal and family allegiances rather than on political affinities.

Parliament in Lebanon has traditionally played a significant role in financial affairs, since it has the responsibility for levying taxes and passing the budget. It also exercises political control over the cabinet through formal questioning of ministers on policy issues and by the capacity to request a confidence debate.

The confessional system in Lebanon has become deeply rooted over the years and today extends to all appointments, whether in the government, the army or any other public institution.

According to the terms of the 2008 Doha Agreement, which ended an 18-month political stalemate over the appointment of a new president, the parliament after the 2009 vote will be divided among the largest 10 of the country's 18 official religious confessions.

Maronite Christians receive 34 seats, Shiite and Sunni Muslims 27 each, Greek Orthodox get 14, Druze get 8, Armenians 6, Greek Catholics 8, Alawites 2, Protestants 1, and one other Christian denomination, 1.

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