Lebanon has experienced a long presidential vacuum three times in its history: from September 1988 to November 1989, from November 2007 to May 2008, and from May 2014 to October 2016, the year that Michel Aoun was elected to the position. With the end of former President Aoun’s six-year term, which came on October 31, the country has now entered a fourth vacuum, one that comes amid a much more complicated domestic, regional, and global environment. This presidential vacuum also falls around the 33rd anniversary of the Taif Agreement of 1989, which charted a course for post-civil war Lebanon—the so-called Lebanese Second Republic—by splitting political power evenly between the country’s Christians and Muslims and redesigning institutional mechanisms of governance.
Political disagreements and the complicated interests of domestic and external forces indicate that this time around the vacancy in the presidential palace outside of Beirut will be a long one. Seven electoral rounds in the Lebanese Parliament have failed to elect Aoun’s successor, either because not enough deputies showed up for the election or because no single candidate was able to obtain the 65 votes necessary to elect a president. This continued failure is certainly an ominous sign, and may prove perilous for Lebanon’s unity and its very survival, as well as for the well-being of the Lebanese people, who are suffering through the devastation caused by a near total economic collapse, political paralysis, social deterioration, and an unwarranted security situation.
Mr. Aoun’s Bitter Pill
President Aoun departed the presidential palace on October 30, effectively ending his term a day early. But before leaving the grounds, he spoke to thousands of his supporters, excoriating Lebanon’s judiciary for allegedly not doing its job and criticizing his political opponents who he claimed prevented him from prosecuting the governor of the Banque du Liban (the Lebanese Central Bank), Riad Salameh, for corruption and malfeasance. He also declared that he had accepted the resignation of the caretaker government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati, and sent a letter to the Lebanese Parliament stating that the body should withdraw its confidence in the government as well. Not only was Aoun’s move constitutionally unsound, it also intentionally attempted to throw the executive branch into a crisis of legitimacy, just as it needed to continue to discharge its duties in the absence of a president. In response, Mikati issued a statement disputing the former president’s reasoning and affirming his government’s intention to act as the legitimate executive authority until a replacement for Aoun can be elected.
Before leaving the presidential palace, Aoun tried unconstitutionally to strip the caretaker government of executive authority and to throw the executive branch into a crisis of legitimacy.
The current situation cannot be sustained for long without causing even more damage to the country. For the first time in Lebanon’s history as an independent state, there exist simultaneously a presidential vacuum and a government operating in caretaker fashion. Articles 49 and 73–75 of the Lebanese Constitution deal with the election of a president, with Article 75 stipulating that parliament cannot legislate while in an electoral session. In other words, the priority is choosing a new president, while the caretaker government conducts the country’s executive business in the meantime. One potential obstacle to the government’s efforts to exercise its mandate is that its decisions must be unanimous. So far, however, no obstacles have presented themselves in the month or so since the end of Aoun’s term.
On November 3, parliament met at the invitation of Speaker Nabih Berri to discuss Aoun’s letter regarding the matter of withdrawing confidence from Mikati’s government. Berri and a majority of deputies decided that the caretaker cabinet is considered legitimate and must perform its duties as the country’s executive authority. Indeed, Mikati is acting as the chief executive that the constitution demands he be, and has represented Lebanon at an early November meeting of the League of Arab States in Algiers—with two pro-Aoun ministers in tow—and at the COP27 climate conference, in effect dispelling any doubt about the status of his government following Aoun’s departure from the presidential palace.
Never has electing a president in Lebanon been as hard as it is today, 79 years after its independence from France on November 22, 1943. The last presidential vacuum, between 2014 and 2016, was difficult for domestic and regional reasons, but it ended with a hard bargain that brought Aoun to the presidency and Sunni politician Saad Hariri to the premiership. Today, the deterioration of political compromise between elites and the collapse of economic and social conditions during Aoun’s six-year term make such bargains impossible to revive.
Lebanon’s political factions are split regarding the qualifications, characteristics, and electoral program for the future president, specifically said president’s position toward Hezbollah and the so-called “resistance” it claims to represent.
The country’s political factions are split regarding the qualifications, characteristics, and electoral program for the future president, specifically said president’s position toward Hezbollah and the so-called “resistance” it claims to represent. On one side of the divide is Hezbollah, which is supported by a broad camp of domestic allies and partners, and which has promised to veto the election of any future president who would not preserve its privileged position within the country. On the other side is an array of political forces—Hezbollah opponents in parliament and among the wider public—that insist on stripping Hezbollah of its position and asserting state authority over both the territory it controls and its monopoly on decision-making. This split represents an as yet insurmountable hurdle on the road to electing the new Lebanese chief executive.
On November 11, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah announced that while a “vacuum in the presidency is not anyone’s objective,” there was no need to hurry in choosing a new president. The party’s preference, he said, was for a president who can “reassure the resistance” and not “stab the resistance in the back.” During the six years of Aoun’s presidency, Hezbollah managed to become the most powerful political and military organization in the country, thanks in large part to the fact that it was the driving force in getting Aoun elected in October 2016 after 29 months of presidential vacuum. And Hezbollah is also attempting to ensure that the country does not get a repeat of its experience with former President Michel Suleiman (2008–2014), who opted to steer a middle-of-the-road course between Hezbollah and other political forces and to preserve Lebanon’s state institutions and institutional mechanisms.
Facing off against Hezbollah and its allies is a nationalist-statist camp that insists that the new president must affirm the state’s monopoly on the means of violence, impose its sovereignty over its territory, and maintain its neutrality in regional politics. Its members reason that president Aoun permitted Hezbollah to become the undisputed political force in the country—buttressed by a standing militia—and they therefore refuse to allow a repeat of the type of grand bargain that brought Aoun to power. Whether this camp is able to see this through is a matter of speculation, especially because of the prevailing influence held by Hezbollah and its main allies, fellow Shia politician Berri, who is leader of the Amal Movement and speaker of parliament, and the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), which is led today by Aoun’s son-in-law Gebran Bassil.
The near equilibrium in the distribution of parliamentary seats between the pro-Hezbollah alliance and what may be called the “sovereignty camp” adds a technical but essential hurdle on the road to electing a new president for Lebanon.
The near equilibrium in the distribution of parliamentary seats between the pro-Hezbollah alliance and what may be called the “sovereignty camp” adds a technical but essential hurdle on the road to electing a new president. According to Article 49 of the constitution, a presidential candidate is elected either by a two-thirds majority of parliament on the first ballot (86 members, the same number required for a legal quorum) or by a simple majority (65 out of 128 votes) in subsequent rounds. So far, no candidate has been able to secure the support of enough deputies, in either the first or subsequent rounds of voting. In the seventh electoral session on November 24, the “sovereignty camp” candidate, Michel Moawad, received only 42 votes, while 50 members cast blank ballots. Indeed, given Lebanese parliamentarians’ complicated allegiances, the significance of those choosing to steer a middle-of-the-road position, and polarization in the broader political environment and in society at large, it appears that only a consensus candidate will be able to receive the support required to become president.
The Confusion Surrounding Presidential Candidates
The Lebanese presidency, which has been reserved for the country’s Maronites since the National Pact of 1943, made between President Bechara el-Khoury and Prime Minister Riad al-Solh, has always attracted a number of candidates. The winner, however, has always been one who has sought to preserve not only the sect’s position within the state but also its relations with the country’s other religious confessions. This time around—and especially following the sharp political divisions that became entrenched during the contentious term of President Aoun—this formula has become difficult to maintain, especially since regional and international actors appear to have grown tired of helping to reconcile differences among the Lebanese people. Nevertheless, there exists a plethora of Maronite candidates on both sides of the country’s political divide, as well as some in the middle and others who remain aloof from all political formations. A few of these many candidates have received the necessary attention to become contenders for the highest office in the land.
But as with all things political, public attention alone is not enough to receive the nod of approval from the discordant Lebanese political establishment. Such is the case with FPM leader Gebran Bassil, who was counting on an endorsement from Hezbollah for his candidacy, but who failed to receive it, despite his movement’s having allied with Hezbollah since 2006. Chief among Hezbollah’s reasons for refusing to endorse Bassil is his bad relationship with Berri and American sanctions against him for corruption, both of which make it almost impossible for him to discharge his duties if elected. Hezbollah is also upset with Bassil for his public disclosure that in a meeting with Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah, he was asked to endorse another candidate, Suleiman Frangieh, for the post, but refused to do so. Apparently, refusing a suggestion proposed by Nasrallah is one thing, but publicizing the issue and exposing the revered cleric as someone whose wishes can be ignored is another matter altogether.
Hezbollah and its main ally Nabih Berri are supporting Suleiman Frangieh, leader of the Marada Movement and grandson of a former president, as a consensus candidate for the presidency.
Be that as it may, Hezbollah and its main ally Nabih Berri are supporting Frangieh, leader of the Marada Movement and grandson of former President Suleiman Frangieh (1970–1976), as a consensus candidate for the presidency. Najib Mikati has also endorsed Frangieh, who may count on the support of some others in parliament as well. But Frangieh’s fortunes are not quite assured since he still cannot make the threshold of at least 65 votes, let alone 86. He cannot even count on FPM’s support in parliament, since Bassil sees himself as just as worthy of the position, despite the many obstacles standing in his way. Additionally, throughout his political career, and despite his protestations that he is a moderate who maintains an equal distance from everyone, Frangieh has had excellent relations with Hezbollah and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, an association that is unlikely to sway those opposed to Hezbollah and to Syria’s influence in Lebanon.
On the side of the anti-Hezbollah, nationalist-statist camp stands parliamentarian Michel Moawad, son of post-Taif Accords President René Moawad, who was assassinated on Independence Day, November 22, 1989, just a little over two weeks after his election. Moawad has declared himself to be “practically the only serious candidate running for the presidency,” and has boasted of having the support of most of the sovereignty camp. But despite these claims, he has only received around 40 votes in every election round. Although Moawad has secured the support of the powerful Christian Lebanese Forces Party (LFP) and others, he has failed to convince many in the anti-Hezbollah camp that he is person for the job. Only two of the country’s Forces of Change deputies—newcomers who were elected in May on an agenda of political and economic reform—cast their votes in his favor. The rest consider him to be part of the traditional elite group that led Lebanon to its current state of collapse.
Other potential candidates, including centrists and those from the two opposing camps, must overcome the same hurdles before they can have a shot at gaining the presidency. Candidates of note include LFP leader and former militia commander Samir Geagea, reform-oriented college professor Issam Khalifa, former Foreign Minister Nassif Hitti, and current Commander of the Lebanese Army General Joseph Aoun (no relation to the former president).
It Will Be a Prolonged Presidential Vacuum
This combination of political and institutional hurdles is preventing the election of a new Lebanese president, and also promises to extend the current presidential vacuum indefinitely. But the lack of regional and international consensus on how to help bridge Lebanon’s political divisions will also prolong the process. The United States, Saudi Arabia, France, and Iran—all of which have both allies and influence in Lebanon—do not appear to be able to come together on a plan to break the stalemate.
The combination of political and institutional hurdles is preventing the election of a new Lebanese president, and also promises to extend the current presidential vacuum indefinitely. But the lack of regional and international consensus on how to help bridge Lebanon’s political divisions will also prolong the process.
The United States and Iran have failed to arrive at an agreement regarding the latter’s nuclear program, and are therefore unlikely to cooperate on Lebanon. Saudi Arabia has recently suspended its Iraq-hosted bilateral talks with Iran and is reportedly dismayed with the power Hezbollah holds in Beirut. And France’s ability to maneuver enough pieces of the puzzle is quite limited. Meanwhile, Lebanon continues to hurtle toward the abyss of the state’s dissolution and its people continue to suffer the vagaries of political and economic collapse. Although electing a president will not by any means solve Lebanon’s myriad problems, it is still a necessary measure that must be completed as soon as possible.
Featured image credit: Facebook/Lebanese Presidency