Is it hard to elect a president? In Lebanon, yes

Bassem Aly , Wednesday 23 Apr 2014

Is the political situation in Lebanon 'mature' enough for a president to be elected amid Syria-influenced domestic tensions?

Lebanese Parliament
Lebanese parliament members give the newly formed cabinet a vote of confidence in Beirut, March 20, 2014. (Photo: Reuters)

The failure of the Lebanese parliament to select a new president on Wednesday reflected the extent of disagreement between its two major political blocs, leading to the postponement of the vote until 30 April.

Apparently, the frustrating outcome emerged in response to the severe split between the Hezbollah-led 8 March Alliance and the anti-Syrian 14 March Coalition, led by the Future movement, over the three-year civil war in neighbouring Syria.

On 30 April, a new voting session will take place, hopefully with a political consensus on one candidate in advance, thereby ending the process of finding a successor to current President Michel Suleiman, whose six-year term concludes on 25 May.

What happened in parliament?

Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri warned on Friday that political conditions were "not mature enough" for the election of a president, according to Lebanon’s Al-Safir newspaper.

Things went exactly that way. Four members out of the 128-member parliament did not attend the voting session, and seven votes were considered as void. The 8 March coalition’s MPs submitted 52 blank ballots.

Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces Party, backed by the 14 March coalition, had 48 votes, while ex-president Amin Gemayel secured only one vote. MP Henri Helou won 16 votes.

Helou, whose father Pierre Helou had occupied several ministerial posts, is supported by a limited bloc of independents and centrists including Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who announced his position a day ahead of the parliamentary voting. 

A quorum of two-thirds of the votes is needed for a candidate to become president. If not available, only a 50+1 majority will be needed during the second voting round. A president must be elected in the period from 25 March until 15 May.

The Lebanese power-sharing system requires a Maronite Christian as president, a Sunni Muslim as prime minister, along with a Shia Musim for parliament speaker. This formula did not evolve out of the blue. Rather, it dates back to a 1943 agreement.

Such politico-ethnic conditions were re-asserted during the 1989 Taif Agreement, which put an end to the 15-year civil war. The peace deal also empowered the premier’s post at the presidency’s account.

Damascus’ hazardous spill over

Last December, Mohamed Chatah, an advisor to the cabinet of ex-premier Fouad Saniora and his successor Saad Hariri, died in a Beirut explosion.

One hour earlier, he accused Shia Hezbollah on Twitter of "pressing hard to be granted similar powers in security and foreign policy matters that Syria exercised in Lebanon for 15 years."

The incident showed the extent of disagreement between the 14 and 8 March groups about the sending of Hezbollah’s fighters to Syria, a position seen by Saad Hariri and his allied groups as a threat to Lebanon’s internal security.

Saad’s father, ex-prime minister Rafik Hariri, was assassinated in a car bomb in 2005, an act that Hezbollah members are accused of committing.

Some historical facts are worth mentioning here. Damascus’ influence on Lebanon commenced with a military intervention in 1976 in a bid to stop the Lebanese civil war. The withdrawal came only after Rafik’s killing.

In relation to Lebanon’s presidential race, Syria had allegedly pressed for a three-year extension to the predecessor of President Suleiman, Emile Lahoud – thought to be Syrian leaning – in September 2004. The extension decision coincided with a UN Security Council resolution at the time calling for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Lebanon.

This time, Lebanese political forces – in addition to Suleiman himself – seemed to not be attracted to the same approach. This situation necessitates the arrival of a new president. 

Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, argued that the head of the Future movement, Saad Hariri, is not going to give Hezbollah the "presidency easily," given his rejection to the latter’s backing of the Syrian regime of Bashar Al-Assad in the ongoing war.

And then?

It took Lebanon’s premier Tamam Salam 10 months to form an equally-divided cabinet between both major blocs. When it comes to the man who will enter the Baabda palace, things are a bit tougher.

For Hezbollah, the 8 March entity in general, leader of the Free Patriotic Movement Michel Aoun is a choice that they hinted to favour for the second round, according to several media reports.

Meanwhile, head of Hezbollah’s parliamentary bloc Mohamed Raad rejected on Saturday Geagea’s candidacy, claiming that he "would delay holding the presidential election on time and cause trouble in the politically divided country."

According to the Daily Star newspaper, Raad said that Hezbollah wants a candidate who will "safeguard and defend the resistance option and is keen on the unity of the Lebanese."

Even Michel Aoun, a former military commander, claimed that the Lebanese people have "vivid memories" against Geagea and "have demonstrated a great deal of aggravation" against him, the Lebanese National News Agency reported. 

Geagea, the candidacy list’s most controversial name, became leader of the conservative Christian party in 1986, and was a key part of the 14 March Coalition against the Hezbollah-led 8 March Alliance.

After serving 11 years in prison for crimes committed during the country's civil war, which ended in 1990, the leader of the Lebanese militia was granted amnesty by parliament in 2005.

In an interview with Al-Arabiya last month, Geagea said that he was the "natural candidate" for the presidency, being the head of the "most popular party among Christians, according to statistics." He added that he was waiting for the "most opportune moment" to announce his candidacy.

He has always said he would push for the withdrawal of Hezbollah troops from war-torn Syria if elected president. "Hezbollah is fighting [in Syria] in order to protect its position and that of Iran in the region, not to protect the Shias," he said, claiming that Hezbollah's sustained intervention in Syria will lead to the destruction of Lebanon.

Randa Slim, an expert on Lebanese affairs, said that "it is impossible" for Geagea to gain the support of 8 March, particularly Hezbollah, given the history between him and the Israelis during the civil war.

She added that the decision to leave Syria will be made only by Hezbollah and its Iranian patron, and that the only community in Lebanon that can pressure Hezbollah to leave Syria are Lebanon’s Shia.

"We are not near that stage. Especially after the war of terror waged by Sunni extremist groups operating in Syria targeting Shia-majority communities in Lebanon, the majority of Lebanon's Shia support Hezbollah's military intervention in Syria. Whether or not this will remain the case will depend on how long this intervention will last," Slim noted.

Short link: