Middle East // Analysis

05 february 2015

Lebanese Presidential Elections

Mario Abou Zeid Research Analyst Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut
Photo:
REUTERS/ Sharif Karim
An empty chair representing the Lebanese
president is pictured at the opening of
the Beiteddine International Festival in
Beiteddine, Mount Lebanon, June 26, 2014

Eight months of continuous presidential vacuum are placing Lebanon on high alert. The absence of a president means that the constitution is being violated and substituted by minimal consensus among political players to keep the government working. Political negotiations through democratic institutions among conflicting parties are replaced by bilateral dialogues among the major political parties. However, the result of this process is that governmental and parliamentary duties are not properly executed, leading to a continuous institutional deadlock. In addition, the Syrian conflict spill-over is increasing economic and security risks for Lebanon. All this bears bad news for the future of Lebanon’s democracy and stability.

Upon his departure from the presidential palace at the end of his mandate on May 25, 2014, the former president Michel Suleiman urged all political factions to elect a new president. The first round of presidential elections was held on April 23, 2014, during which none of the candidates was capable of securing the number of votes needed to be elected. According to the Lebanese constitution, two-thirds of the parliament members, i.e. 86 MPs out of 128 must vote for a candidate to be elected in the first round. In subsequent rounds, a simple majority of votes is enough to secure the presidential victory.

Parliamentarians who are pro-Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite political paramilitary group, are boycotting the sessions, creating the lack of the needed parliamentary quorum for a president to be elected.

After more than 18 calls upon the parliament to meet in presidential election sessions, no president has been elected. One reason for this is that parliamentarians who are pro-Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite political paramilitary group, are boycotting the sessions, creating the lack of the needed parliamentary quorum for a president to be elected. This boycott is driven by the desire to avoid exposing Hezbollah to accountability demands: it is better for Hezbollah and its allies to have a vacant presidency than to have an active opposing leader who could question the party’s involvement in the Syrian conflict, or its role and status as a national resistance group. This is Hezbollah’s tactics based on its experience with former president Suleiman. He launched a national dialogue process that resulted in what came to be known as the Baabda Declaration, which strongly questioned the role of Hezbollah in a conflict outside the Lebanese borders.

Business Insider Australia / Hussein Malla
Hezbollah fighters parade


It is better for Hezbollah and its allies to have a vacant presidency than to have an active opposing leader.

On the constitutional level, the Lebanese president is the guarantor of the constitution application, the head of the state, and the commander in chief of the armed forces. The president also represents the Christian-Maronite community within a complex system of confessional balance of power. In the absence of a president, all his powers are transferred to the cabinet. Any decision requires the approval of all its members. This system leads to constant governmental deadlock, should any minister go against the rest of the cabinet. As a result, in the current situation the government keeps working only thanks to the very basic agreements reached and maintained by political factions on non-sensitive issues.

As for the parliament, when a presidential vacuum occurs, the parliament turns into a sole political body capable of electing a president. These prerogatives were included in the Lebanese constitution to guarantee the sound functioning of democratic institutions. However, as the parliamentary mandate was expiring in 2014, Suleiman issued a presidential decree calling on parliament to hold elections on June 9, 2014. This move was made in an effort to urge the parliamentary committee to issue a new electoral bill, allow the parliament to vote on it and for the government to make the necessary logistical preparations and have the ability to hold elections, should any presidential vacuum occur. However, the Lebanese parliamentary committees exceeded most of the deadlines to agree on a new bill. The government signalled its reluctance to hold elections, citing various security challenges it was facing at the moment, and the parliament renewed its mandate — with the government approval —, which was the outright violation of the constitution. Ever since, the parliament meets in ordinary sessions to legislate, while its speaker keeps calling for presidential election sessions, with no quorum obtained.

REUTERS /Jamal Saidi / Pixistream
Lebanon's Prime Minister Tammam Salam talks
to the media outside the parliament building in
Downtown Beirut November 5, 2014

Bilateral dialogues established among opposing factions, as a mechanism to reach consensus on a number of issues to avoid the collapse of the government, helped reduce popular tensions among political parties and their respective Sunni and Shiite supporters. The dialogue between the Sunni Future movement and Shiite Hezbollah helped reach some understandings but no controversial issues were discussed. Yet, there is no point in engaging in a dialogue to agree on matters that are not discordant. The latest example was Hezbollah’s retaliation in the Shebaa farms against an Israeli convoy, to avenge the death of Hezbollah members in an Israeli attack in the Quneitra area in Syria earlier last month. The Future Movement completely opposes the Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian conflict, and keeps questioning the weapons, the role and decisions Hezbollah takes outside the official Lebanese institutions. However, Hezbollah’s attack happened despite the ongoing dialogue with the Future Movement, and is not on the agenda for discussion in the upcoming meetings. The Shebaa attack proves that no matter what issues are addressed in the bilateral dialogue, if the core controversial issues are not resolved, the cause of division will remain and develop.

The Lebanese Forces and the Free Patriotic Movement, two biggest Lebanese Christian parties, have also initiated a parallel dialogue course to agree on a number of conflicting issues, among which there is the presidential election. The heads of both parties are running for president.

Any decision requires the approval of all its members. This system leads to constant governmental deadlock, should any minister go against the rest of the cabinet. As a result, in the current situation the government keeps working only thanks to the very basic agreements reached and maintained by political factions on non-sensitive issues.

This has led to constant clashes between their supporters, aggravated by the fact that the Lebanese Forces are part of the March 14 coalition alongside the Future Movement and the Free Patriotic Movement is aligned with the March 8 alliance that includes Hezbollah. Unlike the first dialogue between Hezbollah and the Future Movement, Christian parties are attempting to address several controversial issues, including their long history of confrontation, their positions towards Hezbollah and the Syrian crisis. No agreement has been declared to date, with no prospects for positive results among the negotiators. But the presidency is not being debated as part of this dialogue, despite its importance as the highest governmental position that Christians are granted according to the Lebanese National Pact — therefore, its absence gives less political power for the community.

Both dialogues are keeping the government functioning; however, not addressing core issues like electing a president, holding parliamentary elections and forming a new government will lead to continuous institutional deadlock.

These dialogues cannot substitute political institutions. In the current situation, the government’s response towards pressing developments has been weak at best. Recently, Islamist militants have spread all over the Lebanese-Syrian borders in an attempt to infiltrate the Lebanese territory and create safe havens and base camps. In the absence of its commander in chief, the president, the Lebanese army has been facing these militants with limited ability to respond. The absence of the commander in chief also means that army cadet officers are not graduating formally from the military academy, and security institution commanders are being appointed by the cabinet. The diplomatic corps is also half vacant in the absence of a president to appoint new diplomats and ambassadors.

Finally, the Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon is evolving into an economic burden and a peril on the country’s infrastructure. The international community’s donors and stakeholders are not meeting their promises to support the refugees in Lebanon because of their distrust of corrupt and ill-functioning Lebanese political institutions. Should the Lebanese political institutions remain blocked with constant violations of the constitution, Lebanon will lose its reputation as a functioning democracy, and – more importantly – the support of the international political actors and institutions.

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Mario Abou Zeid, “Lebanese Presidential Elections,” Russian International Affairs Council, 05 February 2015, http://russiancouncil.ru/en/inner/?id_4=5197

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