Eight months of continuous presidential vacuum are placing Lebanon on high alert. The absence of a president means that the constitution is being violated and substituted by minimal consensus reached among political players to keep the government operational. Political negotiations through democratic institutions among conflicting parties are replaced by bilateral dialogues among the major political parties. But the result of this process is that governmental and parliamentary duties are not properly executed, leading to continuous institutional deadlock. In addition, the Syrian conflict spill-over is increasing economic and security risks for Lebanon. All this bears bad news for the future of Lebanon’s democracy and stability.
Upon his departure from the presidential palace at the end of his mandate on May 25th 2014, former president Michel Suleiman urged all political factions to elect a new president. The first round of presidential elections was held on April 23, 2014, during which none of the candidates was capable of securing the number of votes needed to be elected. According to the Lebanese constitution, for a candidate to be elected from the first round, two-thirds of the parliament members -- 86/128 -- must vote for him. In subsequent rounds, a simple majority of votes could secure the presidential victory.
After more than 18 calls upon the parliament to meet in presidential election sessions, no president has been elected. One reason for this is that parliamentarians who are pro-Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite political paramilitary group, are boycotting the sessions, which is translated into lack of the needed parliamentary quorum to elect a president. This boycott is driven by the desire to avoid exposing Hezbollah to accountability demands: It is better for Hezbollah and its allies to have a vacant presidency than to have an active opposing president who could question the party’s involvement in the Syrian conflict, or its role and status as a national resistance. In this, Hezbollah is reacting to its experience with former president Suleiman. He launched a national dialogue process that resulted in what came to be known as the Baabda Declaration, which strongly questioned the role of Hezbollah in a conflict outside the Lebanese borders.
On the constitutional level, the Lebanese president is the guarantor of the application of the constitution, the head of the state, and the commander in chief of the armed forces. The president also represents the Christian-Maronite community within a complex system of confessional balance of power. In the absence of a president, all his powers are moved to the cabinet. Any decision to be taken needs the approval of all the members. This system leads to constant governmental deadlock should any minister go against the rest of the cabinet. As a result, what is keeping the government operational in the current situation are very basic agreements reached and maintained by political factions on non-sensitive issues.
As for the parliament, if any presidential vacuum occurs, the parliament turns into an electoral body with the sole purpose to elect a president. These prerogatives were included in the Lebanese constitution to guarantee the sound functioning of democratic institutions. However, as the parliamentary mandate was expiring last year, Suleiman issued a presidential decree calling on parliament to hold elections on June the 9th 2014. This move was made in an effort to urge the parliamentary committee to issue a new electoral law, allow the parliament to vote on such a law and for the government to make the necessary logistical preparations and have the ability to hold elections, should any presidential vacuum occur. However, the Lebanese parliamentary committees exceeded most of the deadlines to agree on a new electoral law. The government signalled its non-readiness to hold elections, citing the various security challenges it was facing as a reason, and the parliament renewed its mandate -- with the approval of the government -- in a direct violation of the constitution. Ever since, the parliament meets in ordinary sessions to legislate, while the speaker of the parliament keeps calling for presidential election sessions in which no quorum is reached.
Bilateral dialogues that are established among opposing political parties, as a mechanism to reach consensus on a number of issues to make sure the government doesn’t collapse, helped reduce the popular tensions among political parties and their respective Sunni and Shiite supporters. The dialogue between the Sunni Future movement and Shiite Hezbollah helped reach some understandings but avoided discussing any of the conflicting issues. Yet, there is no point in engaging in a dialogue process to agree on matters that are not discordant. The latest example was Hezbollah’s retaliation in the Shebaa farms against an Israeli convoy, to avenge the death of Hezbollah members in an Israeli attack in the Quneitra area in Syria earlier last month. The Future Movement completely opposes the involvement of Hezbollah in the Syrian conflict, and keeps questioning the weapons, role and decisions of Hezbollah outside official Lebanese institutions. But Hezbollah’s attack happened despite the ongoing dialogue with the Future Movement, and is not on the agenda for discussion in future dialogue meetings. The Shebaa attack is proof that no matter what issues are addressed in the bilateral dialogue, if the core opposing issues are not resolved, the cause of division will remain and develop.
The Lebanese Forces and the Free Patriotic Movement, Lebanon’s two biggest Christian parties, have also initiated a parallel dialogue course to agree on a number of conflicting issues, among which is the presidential election. The heads of both parties are running for president. This has led to constant clashes between their supporters, aggravated by the fact that the Lebanese Forces is part of the March 14 coalition alongside the Future Movement and the Free Patriotic Movement is aligned with the March 8 alliance that includes Hezbollah. Unlike the first dialogue between Hezbollah and the Future Movement, Christian parties are attempting to address several conflicting issues, including their long history of confrontation, their positions towards Hezbollah and the Syrian crisis. No agreement has been declared to date, with prospects of positive results among the negotiators. But the presidency is not being debated yet as part of this dialogue, despite its importance as the highest governmental position that Christians are granted according to the Lebanese National Pact—and therefore its absence means less political power for the community.
Both dialogues are keeping the government functioning; however, not addressing core issues like electing a president, holding parliamentary elections and forming a new government will lead to continuous institutional deadlock.
These dialogues cannot be the substitute for political institutions. In the current situation, the government’s response towards pressing developments has been weak at best. Recently, Islamist militants have spread all over the Lebanese-Syrian borders in an attempt to infiltrate the Lebanese territory and create safe havens and base camps. In the absence of its commander in chief, the president, the Lebanese army has been facing these militants with limited ability to respond. The absence of the commander in chief also means that army cadet officers are not graduating formally from the military academy, and security institution commanders are being appointed by the cabinet. The diplomatic corps is also half vacant in the absence of a president to appoint new diplomats and ambassadors.
Finally, the Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon is evolving into an economic burden and a peril on the country’s infra-structure. The international community’s donors and stakeholders are not meeting their promises to support the refugees in Lebanon because of their distrust of corrupt and ill-functioning Lebanese political institutions. Should the Lebanese political institutions remain blocked with constant violations of the constitution, Lebanon will lose its reputation as a functioning democracy, and –more importantly– the support of the international donors and stakeholders.