Lebanon’s president Michel Suleiman left office on May 25, but even as the country struggles to contain the chaos — political, humanitarian and otherwise — that’s spilled over from Syria’s four-year civil war.
Earlier today, Nabih Berri, the speaker of Lebanon’s national assembly (مجلس النواب), scheduled the seventh vote since April 23, to elect Suleiman’s successor.
Like the last six ballots, there wasn’t even be a quorum for the vote. Berri has scheduled the eighth attempt for July 2.
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Given that it took ten months for prime minister Tammam Salam to form a new government in February, and that Salam’s unity government came together almost solely for the rationale of getting Lebanon through the presidential election and through a new electoral law and fresh parliamentary elections, there’s no telling how long the standoff could last — perhaps months or even well into 2015.
After former president Émile Lahoud left office in November 2007, it took another six month — until May 25, 2008 — to elect his successor, Suleiman (pictured above).
Though the Lebanese presidency is largely ceremonial, it’s a vital component of the fragile balancing of confessional interests in a country with 18 officially recognized ‘confessions’ — or religious groups. Lebanon’s president must be a Maronite Christian, while its prime minister must be a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of the Assemblée nationale (National Assembly) must be a Shiite Muslim. Of the 128 members of the National Assembly, 64 must be Muslim and 64 must be Christian.
In the meanwhile, Christian parties have said that they will boycott the national assembly’s sessions until a new president is chosen, arguing that the priority for Lebanon should be electing a new president, not routine legislation. That, in turn, makes it less likely that the Salam government can accomplish much of anything until Lebanon has a new president — and there’s no assurance that a new president will be in place in time for parliamentary elections scheduled (for now) to take place in November.
The problem is that Lebanon isn’t Belgium — on balance, it’s not great news for Lebanese governance that it has a caretaker government, with no hope of electing a president and no hope of holding parliamentary elections, which last took place in April 2009. That’s true in ‘normal’ times, but it’s especially true as Lebanon’s government works to hold off further violent spillover from the Syrian civil war, which has ignited sectarian tension in Beirut, Tripoli and elsewhere in Lebanon. The government is also struggling to accommodate over one million Syrian refugees currently living in Lebanon — that’s a staggering amount for a country that only had around 4.5 million people to begin with.
So why can’t Lebanon elect a new president?
The immediate problem is that the ‘March 8’ coalition — which consists of Lebanon’s Shiite and Greek Orthodox legislators, as well as a handful of Sunni and Maronite legislators — are boycotting the vote until a national consensus candidate can be named. Among their ranks is Michel Aoun, the leader of the the Free Patriotic Movement (التيار الوطني الحر), the most prominent Maronite group in the March 8 coalition. They cast blank votes in the first round of the presidential vote, and they’ve simply failed to show up for subsequent ballots.
The candidate of the ‘March 14’ coalition — mostly Sunni and Maronite Christian legislators, including former prime minister Saad Hariri — is Samir Geagea, the head of the Lebanese Forces (القوات اللبنانية).
It’s easy enough to see the path forward. After the first ballot or two, if it’s clear that neither Geagea nor Aoun could amass a majority from legislators outside their respective coalitions, a national unity candidate might emerge. In the last two elections, in 1998 and in 2008, that candidate has been the commander of the Lebanese armed forces (first Lahoud, then Suleiman), the country’s non-partisan, non-confessional national army. The current commander, Jean Kahwagi, accordingly seems like a strong possibility this time around.
After the first two ballots, a successful candidate needs only a simple majority rather than a two-thirds majority. But though the official requirements of electing a president are simple enough, the unofficial requirements are that Lebanon must have a president acceptable to both the March 8 and March 14 coalitions as well as a president acceptable to various regional players, including Saudi Arabia, to which the ‘March 14’ coalition is close, and Iran and Syria, to which the ‘March 8’ coalition are close, most especially Hezbollah (حزب الله), the powerful political and military Shiite organization that’s actively boosting Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s civil war. With Assad still focused on a civil war at home, and with Syria’s influence in Lebanon at a nadir after Syrian troops were forced to withdraw in 2005, the Lebanese presidential race has become a proxy battle in the cold war between the Iranian leadership and the Saudi monarchy.
If the various players disagree on Kahwagi as a candidate, they might also turn to Riad Salameh, the longtime president of the Banque du Liban (مصرف لبنان), the country’s central bank. Since 1993, Salameh has steered the country’s monetary policy, and he’s done a good job of keeping prices relatively stable, even through periodic bouts of turmoil, including the current Syrian civil war, the assassination of former prime minister Rafic Hariri and subsequent unrest in 2005, and a 2006 summer war with Israel.
Another candidate, Ziad Baroud, may be the most popular candidate among the actual Lebanese electorate. Born in 1970, Baroud was an infant when the Lebanese civil war began. A technocrat with popular flair, Baroud served as minister of interior and municipalities under a March 14 government between 2008 and 2011, though he has strong ties to the March 8 camp as well. He’s allegedly the favorite of the patriarch of the Maronite Church, Bechara Boutros al-Rahi, whose views on the election of a Maronite president will obviously be important.
Walid Jumblatt, the most important Druze leader, and the head of the Progressive Socialist Party (الحزب التقدمي الاشتراكي), which has variously aligned with both the March 8 and March 14 coalitions, has ruled out supporting either Geagea or Aoun.