Since the departure of Lebanese President Michel Sleiman from Baabda Palace in Beirut on May 24th, the presidential residence has remained empty, a powerful physical testimony to the Lebanese parliament’s inability to elect a successor. While the main political parties in Lebanon are already trading accusations and blaming their political opponents for failing to timely elect a new president, the current void—however short-lived it may turn out to be—reveals much deeper problems embedded in the Lebanese political system.
The complexity of Lebanon’s presidential election system underlines three separate, yet inter-related, issues: the deeply communal and sectarian nature of Lebanese politics, the general weakness of national political institutions and their inability to rise above pre-existing cleavages to foster national unity and consensus, and the heavy involvement of foreign powers in domestic Lebanese politics. These issues are of course mutually reinforcing. Foreign patronage is enabled both by the state’s weakness and internal divisions within society. It also contributes to weakening the state while also encouraging parochialism, thereby generating a vicious cycle.
The president’s functions and the strength of the office were significantly diminished at the end of the Lebanese civil war, which witnessed a strengthening of the prime minister’s powers at the president’s expense. Yet the presidency today remains both an important symbolic and authoritative office, as well as a key political post in Lebanon’s complex political arena.
The presidency is shaped by the confessional nature of Lebanese politics, which sets fixed quotas for high posts and parliamentary seats allocated to each confessional group. Under this system, the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni, and the speaker of the house a Shiite. The election of the president—who serves for a 6-year term—is also shaped by the country’s fragile confessional equilibrium: parliament is in charge of electing the president by secret ballot requiring a two-thirds majority of the Chamber of Deputies in the first electoral round, or an absolute majority in subsequent ballots. In order for either vote to be valid, there must be a quorum of two-thirds of deputies present.
As a result of this system, presidential elections in recent Lebanese history have often been complex and contentious. This was certainly the case during the fifteen years of ‘Syrian tutelage’ between the end of the Lebanese civil war and the 2005 ‘Independence Intifada,’ which put an end to Syria’s physical military presence in Lebanon. Syria played a powerful political role in Lebanon, with both post-civil war presidents, Elias Hrawi (1989-1998) and General Émile Lahoud (1998-2007), vetted and approved by Damascus. Indeed, Syrian pressure was deemed crucial in extending President Lahoud’s term after its official expiration in September 2004. The move precipitated a dramatic worsening of relations between the Syrian government and the Lebanese cabinet led by Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. This eventually led to Hariri’s resignation in October 2004 and a serious rift between the charismatic politician and Damascus. The rest is, of course, history.
More recently, after President Lahoud’s term expired in November 2007, the election of consensus candidate and former commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces, Michel Sleiman, came as part of the Qatar-brokered May 2008 ‘Doha Agreement,’ which put an end to eighteen months of political paralysis within the Lebanese political system and temporarily bridged the sectarian-political gap between the two main domestic coalitions, the March 14 (M14) and March 8 (M8) forces. Behind the scenes, Saudi Arabia and Syria, the main foreign backers of M14 and M8, respectively, were also involved in Sleiman’s election as a ‘unity figure.’
In terms of internal polarization and paralysis, Lebanon’s present situation is not dissimilar from 2007, again opening the door to foreign involvement in the presidential elections. Indeed, since the beginning of the Syrian civil war in the spring of 2011, cleavages between M14 and M8 have further deepened, with each political coalition standing firm in their respective opposition and support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The rift has further escalated the tone of Lebanese political debate, leading to a situation of dire internal polarization. As usual, national political institutions have paid the price: with the central government weakened and key political and economic reforms unduly delayed.
After his appointment as prime minister in March 2013, Tammam Salam took a staggering 11 months to put together a national unity cabinet. In the end, the parties agreed on an 8-8-8 formula under which both M14 and M8 would be awarded eight ministerial posts, with the remaining eight seats assigned together by the prime minister and President Sleiman.
Certainly, the cabinet’s creation was a move in the right direction for Lebanon. However, since the February 2014 announcement of a new unity government, M8 and M14 have been unable to bridge their differences and agree on a consensus candidate, leading to a number of failed attempts to meet the quorum and nominate a new president. This is partly because the two main contenders, Dr. Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces, and Michel Aoun (whose candidacy remains undeclared), leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, are perceived as unable to elicit bipartisan approval.
While benefitting from strong popularity among the Maronite Christian community, Geagea, the main M14 candidate, also has extremely complex and antagonistic relations with the M8 bloc, and with M8 powerbroker Hezbollah. For his part, Aoun, M8’s ‘self-defined consensus nominee,’ has a history of tense relations with M14, to say the least, making his ascent to the presidency rather unlikely. The search for a viable consensus candidate has been further frustrated by the partisan reputations of the main Maronite Christian politicians, including Geagea, Aoun, Amine Gemayel and Sleiman Frangieh, and leading some commentators to look toward non-political appointees, like current head of the Armed Forces General Jean Kahwagi.
In this climate, it is little surprise that hopes of electing a president by the May 25th constitutional deadline have been frustrated.
Looking forward, internal fragility heightens the possibility of foreign involvement in brokering yet another presidential deal. In this regard, Iran and Saudi Arabia are key potential power-brokers. In the short term, such an arrangement may help move Lebanon beyond the current political impasse. In the long term, however, the undue involvement and influence of foreign powers in Lebanese domestic politics will continue to hinder both national unity, as well as strengthen internal divisions and state weakness.