A much-trumpeted and long-awaited drive against rampant corruption in the public administration appears to be gathering steam, hardly a month after the formation of a new government that has promised to implement bold reforms to salvage the country’s economy.
With Lebanon under heavy pressure to enact key economic and financial reforms recommended at last year’s CEDRE conference to shore up its weak economy, calls for fighting corruption have dominated the political scene and media coverage in the past few weeks. This has overshadowed public demands to resolve the chronic problems of electricity, waste management and the worsening economic crisis.
Top leaders have underlined an urgent need to stamp out corruption in public administrations and ministries and halt the squandering of state funds - essential measures to avert a much-feared collapse of the economy, reeling under $85 billion in national debt, an endemic budget deficit and slow growth.
A total of 54 lawmakers, representing blocs from across the political divide, focused on the need to combat corruption and curb the waste of public funds in their speeches during last month’s parliamentary sessions to debate the new Cabinet’s policy statement ahead of a vote of confidence.
Yet, the anti-graft drive seen as crucial for halting the waste of public funds and reducing the budget deficit appears doomed to fail due to the absence of an independent judiciary and effective oversight bodies, political analysts said.
Worse still, the opening of the “corruption file” is bound to heighten political and sectarian tensions, threatening to stall the campaign altogether, they warned.
“Unless two urgent issues are addressed - changing the current sectarian-based governing system and creating an independent judiciary - the anti-corruption campaign is doomed to failure,” Sami Nader, a professor of economics and international relations at St. Joseph University, told The Daily Star.
“At the root of corruption is the current political system that is based on the sharing of political spoils. This system has meant ministries belong to sects and political parties instead of [having] a rotation of power,” he added.
Nader said that Cabinet decisions made by consensus reflected “a sharing of spoils among a cartel of leaders who have been ruling the country for 15 years.”
“The cartel-type of governance annuls the oversight system - [which] encourages corruption,” said Nader, also the director of the Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs, a Beirut-based think tank.
“The second pillar to fight corruption and curb the waste of state funds is through the establishment of a fully transparent and independent judiciary. Such a judiciary does not exist now,” Nader said.
“Unless these two important measures are taken, the anti-corruption campaign will remain merely a propaganda stunt.”
A similar view was put forward by Imad Salamey, a professor of political science at the Lebanese American University, who emphasized that an independent judiciary and oversight agencies were pivotal to confronting corruption.
“Anti-corruption intentions declared by politicians are not sufficient to confront a deeply entrenched phenomenon embedded in the practice of the clientelist confessional system,” Salamey told The Daily Star.
“What is needed is a systematic anti-corruption measure that provides for an independent judiciary as well as for the activation of governmental and non-governmental public oversight agencies.”
Asked about past barriers to curbing corruption, Salamey said, “The major obstacle stems from the fact that the Lebanese government is consociational and there is no separation of power. Both Parliament and the judiciary are dominated by the executive branch. There are, therefore, no checks and oversight functions performed over government’s conduct, nor is there a possibility for a viable opposition or civil society to litigate corruption cases.”
Simon Haddad, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut, also sounded pessimistic about the chances of the anti-corruption battle yielding concrete results in the absence of an independent judiciary.
He compared the growing political and popular demands to fight corruption to long-standing calls to abolish “political confessionalism” from the ruling system.
“How can you ask those [politicians] who stand to benefit from the confessional-based ruling system to eliminate it? Similarly, how can you ask those benefiting from the confessional system that encourages corruption to abrogate it?” Haddad told The Daily Star.
“In the absence of an effective mechanism to fight graft, that is, an independent judiciary and oversight agencies, the anti-corruption campaign will lead nowhere.”
Haddad pointed out that current attempts to combat corruption would encounter “difficulties due to the confessional system that protects corrupt people.”
“Sectarian fanaticism is stronger than the state and the law,” he said.
“Therefore, the anti-corruption crusade cannot succeed without consensus [among political leaders],” Haddad said.
He added that trying to deal with corruption was bound to raise sectarian tensions as politicians or ordinary people accused of involvement in graft cases or theft of public money would look to their own sect for protection.
Both Salamey and Nader agreed.
“Stirring up issues of past corruption cases is done for political rather than reform purposes. They would only infuriate tensions rather than pave the way for genuine solutions,” Salamey said.
“The opening of the corruption dossier will increase political and sectarian tensions in the country because corrupt people and their protectors belong to all sects and all political parties,” Nader said.
Nevertheless, Nader added that external pressure on Lebanon, mainly from the CEDRE conference, might give some hope for “introducing serious reforms to improve the economy and the financial situation.”
But Salamey was skeptical.
A “possible contribution of CEDRE is to help government avert an imminent economic crisis by injecting confidence into the country and helping growth. It is highly unlikely that the political establishment is willing to respond to CEDRE beyond introducing superficial reforms,” the LAU professor said.
Political sources expressed fears that sectarian tensions triggered by the anti-corruption campaign threatened to derail the reform program.
“The sectarian fallout of the campaign stems from the fact that the corruption file has been thrust into the open by a Hezbollah MP, by implicitly targeting former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora,” a political source said.
“This reality was corroborated by the news conference held by Siniora, who not only rebutted the corruption allegations against him, but also struck back at Hezbollah, accusing the party of being involved in political corruption through establishing a ministate within the Lebanese state.”
Siniora last week denied some $11 billion in extrabudgetary spending during his tenure was illegal, lashing out at Hezbollah for reviving the long-standing controversy.
Hezbollah MP Hasan Fadlallah, who has been tasked with spearheading the party’s fight against corruption, brought the allegations back into the spotlight last month, and last week submitted documents to the financial prosecutor to back up his claims of missing public funds.
Amid the simmering confrontation between Hezbollah and the Future Movement over corruption charges, Parliament’s Finance and Budget Committee announced last week that roughly 15,000 state employees may have been hired illegally. It was the latest twist in a burgeoning scandal over government hiring that is likely to put a further strain on the state Treasury.
MP Paula Yacoubian, an outspoken critic of the entire political class, has voiced her skepticism about the anti-graft campaign.
“The parties in power teamed up ... to employ more than 5,000 people before the [2018 May] parliamentary elections in brazen collective bribery. Representatives of the parties in power are screaming on [TV] screens: More than 5,000 have been hired. ... The leaders of corruption are fighting corruption,” Yacoubian tweeted.
This article has been adapted from its original source.
Copyright © 2019, The Daily Star. All rights reserved.