A New Model for Presidential Elections in Lebanon

It has been four months since former Lebanese President Michel Aoun left office in October 2022, after a presidential term marred by a series of catastrophic events. And so far, no replacement has been elected. Aoun’s term in office coincided with a financial collapse that pushed the majority of Lebanon’s citizens into poverty, massive anti-government protests that decried systematic corruption and called for systemic change, and a cataclysmic blast at the Port of Beirut that was caused by corruption and mismanagement, but which has not, as of yet, resulted in a single prosecution. The country is now at a political standstill amid serious economic and social crises, as well as internal divisions that are preventing the country’s politicians from agreeing on a presidential candidate. And given how intermingled cabinet formation and presidential elections are with the agendas of foreign powers, the presidential crisis is unlikely to end anytime soon. Meanwhile, Lebanon’s foreign patrons, which have deprioritized its crisis, have enabled a new reality on the ground, namely a near complete Iranian influence through a powerful proxy in the form of Hezbollah.

What Is at Stake in Lebanon’s Presidential Elections?

According to the Lebanese Constitution, in order to elect a president it is necessary to secure two-thirds of the total 128 parliamentary votes in a first election round, or a simple majority in subsequent rounds. While this seems simple enough, in practice, matters have been more complicated, especially because the May 2022 legislative elections did not produce any clear winners in the Chamber of Deputies. While Hezbollah—the powerful, Iran-backed Shia party and militia—and its allies were unable to secure an absolute majority in parliament, the opposition still remains divided and unable to agree on a single candidate. Much of the paralysis stems from deep divisions among Lebanese leaders, partly over Hezbollah itself—which is seeking a presidential ally who will be loyal to the party—and a fear that a Hezbollah-aligned president would legitimize the group’s military arsenal, its regional goals, and its influence over Lebanese affairs. But the bottom line is that only a president can form a government; and so, as long as there is no majority or consensus, there will be stasis.

The bottom line is that only a president can form a government; and so, as long as there is no majority or consensus, there will be stasis.

The absence of a president, and hence of a functioning government, comes at the cost of delaying a much-needed economic recovery. The stakes for Lebanon’s economy are high; lawmakers have been working on a set of laws, most notably capital controls that would limit the seepage of public finance, and the lifting of banking secrecy, which would curb financial corruption and tax evasion. These are the prerequisites for unlocking $3 billion of much-needed aid from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Parliament has succeeded so far in passing watered-down amendments to a banking secrecy law—which, in its original form, proscribes access to banking information and enables wealthy depositors to freely transfer assets—that do not satisfy the IMF requirements and that continue to shield the country’s political elite from accountability. Several capital controls laws have also been studied and discussed, with no consensus reached. Lebanon’s government has been acting in a caretaker capacity, which means that its functions are limited; it cannot issue or execute binding structural policies, and hence is unable to pass any economic and financial recovery plans or negotiate with the IMF. This situation will only further deepen the economic and social crises the country is facing.

The Lebanese economy is in shambles and the currency is in free fall, having depreciated by over 200 percent. Economic indicators today are alarming, with unemployment at nearly 30 percent and hyperinflation rampant. Three-quarters of the country’s six million people are living in poverty, and social protection programs are insufficient—if not inexistent—and reach an exceedingly small share of those impacted. Adding to this are a massive brain drain, rising hunger, extreme wealth inequality, and skyrocketing national crime rates. Currency shortages have prompted banks to limit withdrawals, shutting in people’s savings and leading to a proliferation of bank heists and hold-ups. While the dollarization of the economy has been introduced to ease inflation and offer stability, it is likely to send more people into poverty and widen already vast inequalities. The World Bank has described this crisis as possibly one of the top three worst collapses worldwide since the 1850s, one that poses the most serious threat to Lebanon’s long-term stability and peace since the civil war. The longer this political crisis continues, the more difficult it will be to address Lebanon’s pressing economic and social woes.

Lebanon’s “Board of Directors”

While much recent commentary has attributed Lebanon’s problems to its misrule by a corrupt and self-serving ruling establishment and its patrons, solving Lebanon’s problems will also require recognizing the critical role that foreign powers play in the internal affairs of the country—not just in tolerating, but also in fueling the corruption and mismanagement that have perpetuated dysfunction. Here, special attention needs to be paid to how some foreign patrons have been complicit with the continued inertia and lack of positive progress and political reform on the governance front. The presidency is a case in point.

Although Lebanon entered into a presidential vacuum with the end of Aoun’s six-year term, this is not the first time that the country has experienced such a vacancy. President Aoun’s election in 2016 was itself the product of a political consensus between the country’s elites following a 29-month vacuum in the presidency and 45 unsuccessful legislative voting sessions to elect a successor. And prior to that long political void, in 2004, President Émile Lahoud extended his term until 2007 to avoid a vote in parliament, but then, without a majority of votes, the country was unable to elect a new president until May 2008. Then Commander of the Lebanese Army Michel Suleiman was only elected president in 2008 after the Doha agreement—a political deal brokered by Qatar that sought to resolve differences between rival political factions engaged in battle. In all of the country’s previous presidential vacuums, deadlock was broken with a push from abroad.

Since Lebanon’s independence in 1943, no president has been elected without the acquiescence and the green light of the country’s foreign patrons.

Even though Lebanese actors wrangle for power during every election and within a complex power-sharing arrangement among the country’s diverse sects, Lebanon has been so fraught by regional rivalries that presidents have hardly been “homegrown.” Since Lebanon’s independence in 1943, no president has been elected without the acquiescence and the green light of the country’s foreign patrons. And once elected, the president’s mandate depends to a large extent on the confluence of regional powers’ interests and geopolitical dynamics.

Lebanon has indeed been, since its inception, implicitly governed by a “Board of (Foreign) Directors” comprising multiple nations that have held differing amounts of sway at various times, and whose membership in this unofficial directorate has evolved over time. These foreign actors often dictate who becomes president, with parliament ultimately convening to “elect” the selection only after a deal has already been struck, and with internal actors doing little more than providing a seal of acquiescence. At the republic’s founding, this “board” consisted of Great Britain and France; but it later involved a multitude of Arab powers as well. In Lebanon’s most stable period, which occurred post-civil war, it brought together the United States, France, Saudi Arabia, and Syria, with Iran and Israel acting as observers (and with Syria playing the role of a buffer between Saudi Arabia and Iran). When the country was at its most precarious in 2005 following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri and after Syria was driven out of Lebanon following a 29-year occupation, the composition shifted, with Iran substituting for Syria’s position and role on the foreign “board.”

Hezbollah’s political role between 1992 and 2005 was primarily one of opposition from within the Lebanese Parliament. This gave Iran the advantage of being able to largely leave Lebanese domestic politics to its indigenous allies—Hezbollah and the Amal Movement led by Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri—and to Syria, which more or less went along with Hezbollah’s so-called “resistance” agenda. However, this changed after 2005.

Lebanon’s Foreign Patrons Are Preoccupied Elsewhere

Presently, in the context of the Ukraine war and the global energy crisis, which have further drawn the United States’s attention away from the Middle East, the regional configuration in Lebanon has without a doubt created a power imbalance in favor of Iran. The combination of a possible pivot to Asia—Hezbollah is increasingly inviting Chinese capital into the Lebanese market—and the war in Ukraine has relegated the Lebanese file to a secondary place in US foreign policy. And since the rise of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, Saudi Arabia has been inconsistent in its approach and dealings with Lebanon. Despite recent moves to try to rebuild relations and rally its allies in countering the influence of Hezbollah, the kingdom has stepped back from its former allies and provided limited support to the country, largely because of the outsized influence of Hezbollah, which Riyadh also accuses of supporting the Houthis in Yemen.

France, despite its lofty goals and mostly good intentions, and despite having dependably approached the Lebanon dossier and even chalked up some diplomatic successes in the aftermath of the Beirut blast in 2020, has faced a stalemate reflecting the deep erosion of its influence. The current situation is thus one in which Saudi Arabia has minimal influence in Lebanon, France holds limited sway, and Iran, which controls the ground through Hezbollah, enjoys an outsized degree of weight and authority. The subsequently reduced foreign appetite for investing in local political reform has also been aggravated by the lack of political will within Lebanon to enact urgently needed political and economic reforms.

Iran’s interests in the current context are served by Hezbollah, which has successfully countered all internal threats since losing its Syrian political cover in 2005. However, anticipating changes in the configuration of power, it has increasingly sought to buffer its involvement through renewed Syrian engagement in Lebanon, allowing it to remain “above the fray.” Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s newfound legitimacy, gained through recent diplomatic overtures from Arab states in the devastating aftermath of the February 6 earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria, provides just the opportunity that Hezbollah was seeking. And it comes just as the Syrian regime is looking to strengthen its hand in Lebanon, beginning with an attempt to fill the presidential vacuum with pro-Syrian ally Suleiman Frangieh, a former member of parliament, former minister, and current leader of Lebanon’s Marada Movement who was recently anointed as Hezbollah’s favorite choice for president.

As a result, Lebanon’s next president may very well end up being not only an Iranian presidential choice, but a president who reintroduces Syria into the Lebanese domestic political sphere. Having Hezbollah and Frangieh in Syria’s corner while simultaneously returning to the good graces of the Arab world would grant Assad the leverage he needs to secure his regime for the coming years. But although the recent reconciliation between Gulf Arab states and Syria offers the potential for change in the region, said change will hinge on whether Saudi Arabia, which has previously played a determining role in Lebanon, will want to work with the Syrian regime and a Lebanese president who is backed by Hezbollah.

A New Formula: A Possible Iranian Outcome

In the end, the general discrepancy in the selection of Lebanese presidents is merely reflective of the imbalance of power on the ground and the ambitions and priorities of external patrons’ foreign policy choices. The reality is that Lebanon today is not a chief concern of great powers, which are merely pursuing stopgap measures to prevent or to at least decelerate the state’s demise. France, despite its bold public statements to the contrary, continues to hang onto the current order, navigating constraints set by traditional forces while also accommodating Iran. The United States, which is also less bent on taking an aggressive posture, continues to pursue a “light touch” approach in Lebanon by providing general humanitarian aid and directed support to the Lebanese Armed Forces, but without provoking Iran. This stalemate exposes both the waning of US influence and, more broadly, of western influence in the Middle East.

The United States continues to pursue a “light touch” approach in Lebanon by providing humanitarian aid and support to the Lebanese Armed Forces.

Sectarian dynamics in Lebanon have demonstrated, time and again, that tensions between the country’s different communities are a key obstacle to reform. Although Lebanon has survived on political settlements and compromises, the perennial companion of sectarian politics—even when the composition of parliament is unexpectedly altered, as happened to a limited extent in recent elections—has been gridlock. Whereas the current arrangement exists because the Lebanese trust their foreign champions more than their local politicians, Hezbollah is no longer a local force with foreign supporters, but the local subsidiary of an external power, which makes Iranian patronage of the group unlike that offered by any other foreign power.

Lebanon is thus at a crucial juncture: all previous selections for the office of the president (with the possible exception of former President Aoun) benefited from the appearance, at least, of local agreement. But today, the foreign champion has become merely an interlocutor promoting what the Iranians want. As such, the transition from the Aoun presidency to the next one may effectively mark the evolution of a new Iran-influenced model of Lebanese elections.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: Facebook/Lebanese Presidency