Lebanon, the eternal presidential vacuum
21 months and 36 failed attempts have passed since President Michel Suleiman vacated the presidential palace at the close of his tenure, on May 24, 2014. The next round has been fixed for March 2, 2016. Lebanon’s sectarian system of government is facing one of its biggest tests since being pieced back together from the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990). But the Lebanese people still resist.
What are the root causes of this repeated failure, which has prevented the election of the President for such a long time? A prior reconstruction of the main events could likely benefit to the comprehension of this unusual phenomenon. According to the Lebanese Constitution, for a candidate to be elected in the first round, two-thirds of the Parliament members (86/128) have to vote for him. Unfortunately, it was not the case after the end of Suleiman’s mandate – on April 23, 2014 – when no candidate reported a first round victory: Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces, received 48 votes, Henri Hélou (Progressive Socialist Party) 16 votes and Amine Gemayel (Kataeb Party) 1 vote, with 52 votes blank and 7 void. The lack of quorum prevented from holding the second round. From that moment, no one was able to take office at the presidential Baadba Palace.
As stated by the Constitution, the Lebanese President, besides being its guarantor, is also the Head of the State and the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. In his absence, all his powers are moved to the cabinet which is forced to approve any decision by consensus. In this case, the risk is that political debate could be easily replaces by bilateral dialogues among the major political parties, in order to keep the governmental powers low. What is more, the absence of a President is what allowed the Parliament to self-extend its mandate twice: parliamentary elections that were scheduled in Lebanon for June 2013 got postponed with a projected date (November 2014). Then, in 2014 they were postponed again until 2017.
At the base of this institutional deadlock there are many reasons, on top of the stagnation of the political negotiation process. One should first try to understand what structural causes contribute to the lack of a President. The first one is related to the confessional set-up of Lebanon. In a country with 18 religious groups, Lebanon has devised a system to closely accommodate equal power-sharing among the main communities. Starting from the results of the 1932 census (the last official one made in Lebanon), the National Pact of 1943 stipulated that the President of the Republic must be a Maronite Catholic (at the time when the community was demographically more numerous and politically more influential), the Prime Minister of the Republic a Sunni Muslim, and the Speaker of the Parliament is a Shi’a Muslim. The 1989 Taif Agreement, signed in Saudi Arabia after the end of the civil war, resulted in the most important constitutional and institutional change in Lebanon since the proclamation of the Republic, as it specified the role of presidency as a secondary position within a quasi-parliamentary system. Executive power passed from the hands of the President of the Republic to the Council of Ministers. In addition, the Taif Agreement set up the legitimacy of the Syrian presence as a guarantor of peace in Lebanon, endorsing once and for all the influence of outside powers on the fate of Lebanon. Traditionally, regional and western powers have played a heavy role in Lebanon’s internal politics.
If anything, the Pact and the Agreement are regarded as taking to the extreme sectarian dynamics, which give each party the power to block important political decisions, such as the election of the President. For instance, parliamentarians of the March 8 Alliance have boycotted the sessions several times. This boycott is driven by the desire to avoid exposing the coalition member Hizbullah to accountability demands: it is better for Hizbullah and its allies to avoid having an active President who could question the party’s involvement in the Syrian conflict. Thus, is in their best interest the election of a President that is on good terms with the Syrian regime may safeguards their interest.
The March 14 Alliance – formed by the Sunnite of the Future Movement (Hariri), the Christians of the Lebanese forces (Geagea) and the Kataeb Party – considers the election of the President as the key priority. They think that legislating in the absence of the President is considered to be unconstitutional, although all of those parties accepted the extension of the mandate. However, the March 8 Alliance have asked for early parliamentary elections before the presidential elections, basically because they do not have the necessary majority to elect Michel Aoun, their main candidate, to the presidential charge and leader of the Maronite Free Patriotic Movement (FPM). In spite of priorities, one thing is certain: the current electoral law is bad. The Lebanese parties cannot agree on an alternative law that could help overcoming sectarian obstacles. A new electoral law, introducing proportional representation claimed long ago by civil society, would make significant changes in the country’s political life, not only loosening the knot of the presidential bloc but also breaking those sectarian mechanisms that harness the democratic decisions taken by the Parliament. However, the Lebanese parliamentary committees exceeded most of the deadlines to agree on a new electoral law. The government signaled its refusal 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.
What is going to happen at dawn of March 2, 2016, when the next parliamentary session to vote for a President is due to happen? There are good chances that nothing new is going to occur, despite some recent developments which have concerned the different coalitions. The two main candidates have been for almost two years always the same: the general Michel Aoun (FPM) for the March 8 Alliance and Samir Geagea (LF), nominated by the March 14 Alliance. Things changed when the decision by Saad Hariri to endorse Suleiman Franjieh– leader of the Marada movement, one of the Maronite alliance parties of the March 8 Alliance – as a candidate, perhaps with the intent to switch Hizbullah’s votes towards Franjieh (traditionally ally of the al-Assad regime), did not wield desired results expected by Hariri himself. Firstly, because Hizbullah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah declared that they will continue to support the candidature of Aoun; secondly because Hariri’s move resulted in a surprising rapprochement of the two historically rival candidates, Aoun and Geagea, the latter declaring its support for Aoun’s candidature. Franjieh thus seems to be anything but a candidate of consensus. Moreover, some (even among the ranks of Hariri’s party) observed that a Franjieh presidency could lead to further instability. Bringing in someone close to al-Assad would have as a consequence more Sunnis in Lebanon getting radicalized. Added to this, the decision of the influential leader of the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) and representative of the Druze community, Walid Jumblatt, to support one or the other candidate could contribute to this scenario.
Now, considering how complicated things are, it seems hard to believe that such developments could tip the balance in favor of one of the candidates, and that a definitive agreement will be reached fairly soon. Without first filling the structural flaws in the system, Lebanon is unlikely to have a new President, at least not without outer interference. The election of a Lebanese President has traditionally required a convergence of domestic and international interests. Since the crisis affects Syria, the mechanism that bring foreign powers like Syria, Saudi Arabia – but also France and the U.S. – together is now suspended and results in the vacancy of the Lebanese presidency.
Despite everything, however, Lebanon has impressively demonstrated to be able to go forward. The massive landing of a huge number of refugees (about a quarter of the population) results in taking a pragmatic approach to handle the political uncertainties. As we have seen, presidential power is not decisive anymore, at least not to the substantial working of the country. According to Habib Battah, of Beirut Report, the public’s reaction to the presidency fiasco is not their primary concern at the moment, stemming largely from the fact that the public does not participate in electing the President. To the public’s outrage, the Parliament’s postponed mandate is to be considered far more as an unconstitutional and undemocratic act, showing the fact that for the Lebanese people the role of Parliament is perhaps more relevant. Lebanese society was used to self-management during the 15 years of bloodshed during the civil war (1975-1990). But it is no longer willing to accept an often corrupt State system. In the meantime, people organize themselves in the public and private sector to continue ensuring the functioning of the administrative institutions and the economy, aspiring to a genuine democratic government, hopefully guaranteed by a commonly accepted President.
Bachelor’s degree in Cooperation, Development and International Studies (University of Turin)
 In Lebanon, the status of the communities was recognized since the early 1930s as a result of numerous consultations between the mandatory powers – notably France – and the religious leaders of each group. In 1936, the Decree No. 60 was issued by the High French Commissioner for Syria and Lebanon setting to 17 (but later become 18) the number of “historically” recognized communities in Lebanon.
 The Taif Agreement established a special relationship between the sovereign-recognized Lebanon and Syria, thus providing a framework for the beginning of complete Syrian withdrawal (completed only in 2005). See: https://www.un.int/lebanon/sites/www.un.int/files/Lebanon/the_taif_agreement_english_version_.pdf
“Lebanese Elections Assistance Project (LEAP),” United Nations Development Programme. http://www.lb.undp.org/content/lebanon/en/home/operations/projects/democratic_governance/project-id—00083474—lebanese-electoral-assistance-project–l.html
“Lebanon: UN envoy expresses regret over Parliament term extension, stalled elections,” United Nations. November 6, 2014. http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=49271#.VtCsu_LhDIU
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