Lebanon’s current presidential election period began on March 25, in the midst of one of the worst security crises to face Lebanon since the country’s fifteen-year civil war, and is highlighting the failure of the country’s consensus system. In theory, Lebanon’s consensus, which forms the backbone of the political system and by extension communal relations between its eighteen recognized religious groups, allows each sectarian community to have its fair and proportional say within the halls of government. In reality, however, it leads to continual deadlock, the involvement of outside powers, obstruction of the political process, and (in its most charnel incarnation) acts of extreme violence. While the competing factions all agree that ensuring Lebanon’s internal stability is a priority, they each have a different person in mind to lead that effort.
Lebanese political fortunes have been intricately tied to events in Damascus since the country’s establishment, with Syria taking a more controlling role during and after Lebanon’s civil war. The Hezbollah-dominated March 8 coalition, composed of Syrian allies, is opposed by the March 14 alliance, headed by the Sunni-majority Future Movement, with ties to Saudi Arabia and the West. In the middle sits a centrist bloc, headed by long-time Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. With the Syrian uprising, the competing Lebanese parties sought to take advantage of the situation to help increase their own influence internally. The Lebanese state has borne the brunt of this crisis and Hezbollah’s decision to enter the fray. Since March 2011, one million Syrians, mainly Sunni refugees, have entered the country to seek shelter. Many communities within Lebanon’s poorer Sunni regions neighboring Syria have felt the economic and associated security impact of this massive influx of refugees. As for more immediate security attacks, 2013 saw a total of sixteen car bombs, mainly targeting Hezbollah strongholds, as well as pitched gun battles between Sunnis and Alawites in Tripoli and an increased willingness among Sunni militants to target the Lebanese armed forces, under the premise that the military acts in support of Syrian interests. Despite this instability, the state has been unexpectedly successful in enacting a security plan in Tripoli and the Bekaa region last month.
To ensure the state’s continued ability to limit spillover into Lebanon, all parties acknowledge that the position of president must not be left vacant. Presidential vacancies are not uncommon, with the incumbent, Michel Suleiman, having come to power after a six-month vacuum. While largely a ceremonial role, the president is endowed with the responsibility to ensure the smooth functioning of government as a broker of communal relations and through the influence provided by the post over governmental institutions. In the current context, this means overseeing Sunni-Shia tensions, shoring up support of the country’s military as it enacts the new security plans, and acting as a figurehead to the Christian community, which now looks worryingly at growing radicalization in Syria and the wider Middle East.
While these crucial roles are agreed upon by both camps, each of the political coalitions has its own interests with regard to who will sit in Baabda Palace. March 14, which rose to prominence in the aftermath of the Syrian withdrawal in 2005, has suffered both politically and in some cases physically, with targeted assassinations at the hands of Syrian allies. Now, as part of a unity government, it looks for a president who will not challenge its return to government. Hezbollah and its March 8 coalition view the uprising in Syria as an existential crisis. In this context, Hezbollah is looking for a president who will turn the country’s attention away from its involvement in Syria and its massive weapons stockpile at home, the reason why it is more than happy to see Michel Suleiman, who had grown more critical of them, leave.
Under a constitutional order adopted during the French mandate, the Lebanese president is not elected by the citizenry. Rather, he is chosen directly by MPs, each of whom represents a confessional group, their own narrow political interests, and to differing degrees the dictates of regional and international powers. Adding to the complexity of this process, the position of president has historically been reserved to a member of the Maronite Christian community, as agreed upon in an unwritten arrangement made by Christian, Sunni, and Shia leaders in 1943.
According to the constitution, the president must be elected by parliament within a two-month period before the end of the incumbent’s term. Within this time frame it is up to parliament to exercise their duty by way of special session(s) dedicated solely to this end and called by the Speaker of the House. In order for an electoral session to proceed, two-thirds of the 128 MPs must be in attendance, to meet the parliament’s customary quorum. During the first session, a presidential candidate, as stipulated in the constitution, must achieve a two-thirds majority, with 86 votes in favor. If this is not achieved, subsequent sessions require only a simple majority, 64 votes plus one. In cases of continued disagreement, a shotgun session becomes mandatory ten days before the end of the incumbent’s term. Finally, if a president is not chosen during this time the position may be left vacant, if an agreement over an extension cannot be made.
Thus, March 8 is understandably frustrated with March 14’s choice for president, Samir Geagea, the head of the Lebanese Forces Party and the only former militia leader to spend time in prison for his role in the civil war. Released in 2005 after 11 years in jail, Geagea has been a consistent critic of Syria, Hezbollah, and their combined domination over Lebanon. Consequently, he holds little chance of becoming a consensus candidate within a parliament in which neither coalition has the seats required to unilaterally vote a president into power, and in which the centrist bloc has presented its own candidate, Henry Helou. In the first presidential session, held on April 23, Geagea received 48 votes, with March 8 MPs casting 52 blank ballots and some MPs even writing the names of martyrs purportedly killed by the Lebanese Forces leader on their votes. Continued March 14 support for his candidacy—likely a result of their unwillingness to elect a March 8 representative instead—led a significant amount of March 8 MPs boycott the second presidential session on April 30.
The March 8 candidate most able to counter Geagea’s bid is Michel Aoun, former army commander and head of the Free Patriotic Movement, the largest Christian party. With the disagreement surrounding Geagea, Aoun has attempted to position himself as a consensus choice for the two coalitions. However, his attempt to become president is hampered by his alliance with Syria and membership in March 8, which has allowed Hezbollah to play a dominant role in the Lebanese political system and provided cover for its involvement in Syria. This has ensured that any arrangement between March 14 and March 8 to see Aoun take the role of president would cause a further loss of support among the former’s Sunni constituency, particularly those in the hotspots of Tripoli, Sidon, and the Bekaa Valley.
The boycott of the third presidential session on May 7 again resulted in a failure to meet the necessary quorum for elections. The fourth round has been scheduled for May 14, but this impasse points to the need to agree upon an alternate consensus candidate, one who does not pose a threat to either of the political camps or their core interests. There are a number of possible candidates from which to choose, including former President Amin Gemayel from March 14, Suleiman Franjieh from March 8, the aforementioned centrist bloc MP, Henry Helou, and a number of current and former governmental and civil service officials, including army commander Jean Kahwaji. Observers hope that the same calculations that guided the formation of the current Lebanese government after a ten-month delay—namely a desire for internal Lebanese security in the face of Syrian spillover—will enjoin both camps to elect one of these candidates in the near future. Though, as Hezbollah and the state cooperate on internal security and the Assad regime gains ground in Syria, there is a resultant lull within Lebanon that may shift these political calculations—and the country may again face a political vacuum in the name of consensus.
Alexander Corbeil is a senior Middle East analyst with The Atlantic Council of Canada and a blogger with the Foreign Policy Association.