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Some Lebanese MPs are refusing to play politics, but that’s a flawed approach

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The so-called Change bloc in Lebanon’s parliament is threatened with collapse. Until last week, the bloc was made up of 13 parliamentarians who won seats in the elections of May. They portrayed themselves as opponents of the political elite who reflected the reformist aspirations of those rising up against the Lebanese system in October 2019.

Two developments underlined how the bloc was facing major challenges. In elections to parliamentary committees, Ibrahim Mneimneh, a Change MP, failed to be re-elected to the key finance and budget committee. Speaker Nabih Berri had wanted to implement prior understandings in which all major blocs would have representatives appointed to committees. The Change bloc argued this would only give them one member in each committee, so they refused, demanding that elections be held instead. Marc Daou presented his candidacy to the committee, hoping he would win a seat alongside Mr Mneimneh, but in the end both men lost to a third candidate.

Soon thereafter, a Change MP unhappy with this situation, Michel Douaihy, announced he was withdrawing from the bloc in its current form, striking a severe blow. While Mr Douaihy’s resentment was understandable, it would have made more sense to manage the situation from inside the bloc, rather than taking a step that threatened its very existence.

From the outset the Change bloc faced a major challenge, which it has not resolved. It had to act as a cohesive unit, while also adapting to the fact that it is not a political party and that its members were elected from separate lists. On top of this, each of its members has ambitions of his or her own, meaning they are often more likely to adopt positions clashing with those of their colleagues.

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Politics is about bargaining and horse-trading

At the same time, while the bloc has made clear what its general preferences are, and has sought to distance itself from the practices of the traditional political elite, it has not really adopted a practical strategy that sets out achievable, realistic priorities. When he announced his withdrawal from the bloc, Mr Douaihy expressed his hope that it would become a consultative gathering. But in the absence of internal rules and specific policy objectives, that is more or less what the Change bloc had already become.

Nor is this a minor matter. The Change bloc reflects the aspirations of tens of thousands of voters who hoped that by electing a new kind of parliamentarian, they would help to achieve some of the goals of the uprising of 2019. Yet by putting on a display of disarray, the Change bloc is effectively betraying the faith that these voters had placed in them.

Is there a way out of this situation? The simple truth is that divided, the members of the Change bloc will fall, which means that unity remains their only path to political relevance. It’s difficult to see, for example, what Mr Douaihy’s added value will be now that he is on his own, in a parliament in which large blocs dominate. At best, he will be someone whose presence will be felt on political talk shows, but little more than that.

Yet the Change bloc remains one of the larger parliamentary blocs, and can play a major role if it picks its battles intelligently. But at present it is marginalised in the election of a new president, the major matter at hand for Lebanon. In all the parliamentary sessions to vote in a president, bloc members have not named a candidate. While they support several respectable political figures, at least two have asked the bloc not to vote for them, fearing this would make them less likely to emerge as compromise candidates.

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This has placed the Change bloc in the midst of a maelstrom. The candidate of the so-called sovereigntist parties in parliament, which tend to oppose Hezbollah, is Michel Mouawad. However, the Change bloc has refused to vote for him, seeing him as a representative of the old political class. This has angered the sovereigntists, while those close to Hezbollah are delighted that no consensus is building around a candidate whom they oppose.

Had the Change bloc voted for Mr Mouawad last week, this would have given him around 55 votes, nine shy of the 64 needed to be elected in a second round for a president. At the least, such a tally would have allowed Mr Mouawad’s supporters to strengthen their hand in negotiations with Hezbollah over a consensus candidate, reinforcing the parliamentary majority, including the Change bloc, that is uneasy with the party’s sway. By refusing to think tactically, the Change bloc has simply become isolated.

Not naming a candidate of its own while also failing to support Mr Mouawad is a recipe for irrelevance. It makes no sense to win an election to parliament, and then refuse to play politics. Politics is about bargaining and horse-trading, and unless the Change bloc secures its priority objectives by giving other political actors or blocs what they want elsewhere, it will achieve little. The election of a new president is a good place to start.

For now, however, the Change bloc must engage in self-criticism and alter its approach. If it continues making the same mistakes, the bloc will guarantee its inconsequence. Its fortunes certainly show how difficult it is to change political life in Lebanon, but this need not be exacerbated by the fact that the agents of such change are failing to agree to a sensible plan of action.

Published: October 26, 2022, 4:00 AM

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Ministers decline request to testify on Afghan aid blockade as desperation grows

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Three Liberal ministers have declined invitations to testify in the Senate as the upper chamber probes why Canada still won’t allow humanitarian workers to help in Afghanistan.

Aid groups say Ottawa has told them that paying people in Afghanistan or buying goods there could lead them to be prosecuted under anti-terrorism laws.

Many of Canada’s allies have found carveouts so that aid workers don’t get charged with supporting the governing Taliban, which is designated as a terrorist group.

But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has no explanation for why Canada hasn’t fixed the issue.

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The Senate’s human-rights committee will launch hearings into the issue on Monday and invited three ministers to attend, but all of them said they had prior commitments at the time of the planned meetings.

The United Nations says six million Afghans are now categorized as being at risk of famine, while another fourteen million are in critical need of food.

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When politics wasn’t a team sport

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It has all been downhill in America since the first six presidents. Western civilisation was never the same after ancient wisdom gave way to the sentimental Gospel. Roosevelt should have stayed out of that damn fool war in Europe and the Pacific. People are breeding too much. The state must stop them.

I like Gore Vidal so much that I involuntarily smile when I see the spine of his essay collection, United States, in my bookcase. Even before his dotty late phase, though, he was a reactionary kind of liberal. If his 1968 debates with the conservative William Buckley Jr still grip us, it is because of the two men’s underlying oneness, not the superficial Democrat vs Republican framing.

Best of Enemies, James Graham’s otherwise fine play about the duel of the drawlers, might have made more of this. I fear much of the audience leaves with the sweet notion in their heads that Vidal would today have been a woke ally. The play wants to suggest that his showdown with Buckley was a trailer for the culture wars, the partisan spite, of now. I have come around to the opposite view.

The debates marked the end of something good, not the start of something bad. It was the last time being politically hard-to-place was normal.

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Put it this way. If you tell me what you think about, say, the return of the Benin bronzes, I can infer with some confidence your views on public spending, the EU, rail strikes, immigration, working from home, climate change, Meghan Markle and much else. Nothing connects these subjects. It should be possible to be a small-government Remainer who thinks imperial loot is better off in western museums and who loses sleep to visions of a burning planet. But such a person would stand out now. To take a more concentrated example, lots of people should be anti-lockdown and pro-vaccine mandate. How many do you know?

I have aired Ganesh’s First Law of Politics before, but allow me a recapitulation. People do not work out their beliefs and then join the corresponding tribe. They join a tribe and infer their beliefs from it. The sense of belonging, the group membership, is what hooks people, not the thrill of being right or pursuing a thought on its own terms. Politics has become a team sport, goes the line on this. But even that is too kind. Sports fans are sardonic and irreverent about their own team. It isn’t so central to their identity as to require consistent adherence.

We have lost all sense of how weird it is to seek connection with others through politics. And how new. Watching Buckley and Vidal is a reminder of a less needy age. The former had his own credentials as an apostate of the right: his loose line on marijuana, his Catholicism, his Spanish-speaking intellectualism. Nor was the audience at the time much easier to place. Millions of whites were pro-New Deal and anti-Civil Rights in a way that stumps modern notions of “progressive” and “conservative”.

Noting the change since then is simple enough work. Accounting for it is trickier. One theory suggests itself. The rise of politico-cultural blocs more or less tracks the decline of church membership, trade unions and marriages that go the distance. An atomised population began to cast around for other kinds of belonging, didn’t it?

The mid-20th century voter was heterodox, yes, but heterodox in the way that someone with strong roots could afford to be. With such a firm social anchor, there was less need to seek emotional security in a political tribe. As I’ve used two metaphors for the same thing there, let us keep them coming. A rudder, a bedrock, a cornerstone, a north star: people used to find these things in their personal relationships. In their church, family, factory or town. As modernity scrambled those things, mostly for the good, the need to subsume oneself into a group was going to have to be met some other way.

That turned out to be politics. We live with the wicked results all the time now. The perverse consequences of ostensibly desirable change: Buckley would call this a conservative insight. And I, though a Vidalist, always thought he won those debates.

Email Janan at janan.ganesh@ft.com

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Can coal be a pivot toward ‘normal politics’ in Alberta?

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“Normal Politics”: I encouraged my students to embrace and practice this type of politics. Bernard Crick, a British political theorist, imagined this concept decades ago. He believed healthy democratic politics demanded empathy for your political opponents and searching for policies able to reconcile or bridge competing positions. At its best, normal politics is about finding or creating and implementing consensus. It invites political opponents to recognize they have some shared values and to work together to realize them. 

Sadly, normal politics rarely characterizes politics in today’s democracies. Its antithesis is too common in political debate. In Alberta recently, the executive director of Take Back Alberta, an interest group that helped propel Danielle Smith into the premier’s office, accused the New Democratic Party of promoting a “toxic and disease-ridden ideology.” Such extremism slams the door on Crick’s hopeful view of politics.   

With the legislature back in session, I don’t expect to see a lot of normal politics on display. But, in her recent television address, Premier Danielle Smith told Albertans she “must be humble, listen and continue to learn from you.” Alberta’s coal debate issue gives her an exceptional opportunity to back that commitment up with meaningful action.   

Coal has been one of Alberta’s most contentious issues over the past several years. It’s an issue where a consensus exists, a consensus that could be strengthened. As hard as it may be for some residents of the Crowsnest Pass to accept, most Albertans don’t believe coal mining should have a future anywhere in the Rockies and foothills of Alberta’s Eastern Slopes. Impressive majorities of Albertans have said as much in public opinion polls, the Grassy Mountain coal mine hearings and the Coal Policy Committee consultations.  

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Smith’s government should listen to and implement this consensus. In this legislative session, the premier should introduce legislation guaranteeing that coal mining proposals in our southern Rockies and foothills cannot be revived.  

But I think Crick would want the premier to go one step further. I think he would invite her to try to broaden the consensus, to try to bridge the gulf between coal mining opponents and supporters. Identify positions those camps share; build on them. Community prosperity in southwest Alberta is an obvious candidate here.  

So far Alberta’s debate about coal has offered thin gruel when it comes to what economic future could be built in southern Alberta without coal mining. The UCP and NDP alike must pay serious attention to nurturing in the southwest the range of economic activities central to Alberta’s developing post-industrial society.  

What does this perspective recommend? Begin to craft a regional development strategy. Several paths lead in this direction. One would be to establish a Southern Alberta Sustainable Economic Opportunities Forum. Invite leaders from Alberta academia, business, the federal government, First Nations, labour and municipalities to join it. Task them with thinking about how, without coal, healthy and prosperous livelihoods may be delivered to the people of southwest Alberta. Or, strike an all-party legislative committee, chaired jointly by the UCP and NDP, to do something similar. If this venture bears fruit, it could be replicated for other regions in Alberta.  

Coal offers Smith the opportunity to pivot toward normal politics and show her commitment to listening to Albertans is genuine. Coal has opened the door to privileging conciliation in politics. If the premier goes through that door, she may be able to deliver what all sides of Alberta’s coal debate seek: good, healthy livelihoods for the people of southern Alberta.  

Ian Urquhart is professor emeritus of political science at the University of Alberta. 

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