The vacuum left by the failure of the Lebanese parliament to elect a new president after the end of the six-year term of former President Michel Suleiman on 24 May 2014 is lingering on and is unlikely to be filled anytime soon. However, in spite of the intractable lack of political agreement among the MPs on the presidency, on 5 November 2014 the parliament decided to extend its own mandate until June 2017, referring to the many “security issues in the regions”, especially concerning the Syrian war.
Only Christian MPs of the Kataeb party and the Free Patriotic Movement boycotted the vote. The presidency remains the major stronghold of Maronite Christians in the post-war power-sharing arrangement, sanctioned by the Taef agreement of 1989; not surprisingly this extension was seen by most Christians as a cheap shot at the country’s gentleman’s agreement (according to which the Head of the State must be a Christian Maronite), and – more generally – to the role of Christians in Lebanon. After the parliament’s decision, the Maronite Patriarch, Bishara Rai, hit the roof and blasted this extension as “illegal and against the constitution”.
Beyond the Maronite opposition to a bill which objectively undermines the power of Christians in Lebanon, the renewal of parliament’s term fuelled a cross-confessional rage in the country. According to recent opinion polls, only 11% of Lebanon approves parliament’s extension, while the majority calls for elections. Protesters also gathered in Nejme Square, where the Parliament is located, contesting what they termed as a “democratic disgrace”.
To ignite the political debate, in a recent interview to the Lebanese newspaper As-Safir, Michel Aoun – a potential presidential candidate to the Ba’abda Palace and the main ally of the Shi’a party Hezbollah – accused the al-Mustaqbal Movement (led by the Sunni businessman Sa’ad Hariri) of blocking the current majority in the parliament, fearing a likely reduction of its share in future elections. “Where did they get the idea that parliamentary elections should not be held prior to the presidential elections? – Aoun asked. “When there is a political or national crisis in normal countries, they resort to early parliamentary elections as an option to get out of the crisis, let alone if the elections are already a year and five months late because of the previous extension.”
Aoun went on to say that the current presidential crisis deteriorated after his talks with Hariri broke down. According to Aoun, the rupture came after the Saudi Foreign Minster, Prince al-Faiçal, put his veto on his candidacy.
Aoun’s thesis may correspond to a real political game between the Saudi king and his Lebanese pupil Sa’ad Hariri. In his analysis, however, he conveniently forgets that even his strong ally, Hezbollah – which is in turn backed and financed by Iran – voted in favour of the parliament’s term extension.
The elephant in the room here is the failed entente between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which have been engaging in a cold war in the Arab Levant, using and manipulating their respective proxies in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, and have been unable to agree on the name of the future Lebanese president. Not for the first time, in the absence of a compromise between the two major powers in the region, any change in the political status quo is liable to lead to a further deterioration in the security situation.
Beyond this political crisis, there is no direct intention by domestic and regional actors to undermine the power of Christians in the country. However, the outcome of the dangerous geopolitical game between Saudi Arabia and Iran is anyway likely to coincide with a downgrading of the role of Maronites in Lebanon.
Looking at the evolution of the institution of the presidency in Lebanon over the country’s history, the current impasse is likely to further transform the Lebanese political system.
Born under the umbrella of a strong presidentialism, sanctioned by the mithaq al-watani (‘National Pact’) of 1943, the system was reshaped by the Taef agreements of 1989, which put an end to the longstanding Lebanese civil war (1975-1990). Taef downgraded the importance of the (Maronite) president’s role to the advantage of the Council of Ministers, led by a Sunni PM, and redefined the weight of Christians and Muslims (Sunni and Shi’a) in parliament from 6:5 to 1:1. Despite the reduction in its power, the president still plays a balancing role between the prime minister and the speaker of parliament.
Nonetheless, if the presidential vacuum becomes stagnant, with a fragmented parliament exerting the functions of the presidency, the role of the Head of the State will be substantially, if not formally, reduced. By showing that Lebanon can go ahead without its highest authority, however, the Lebanese political system is also proving more than ever to be a hostage of the various feudal-like parties, and increasingly dependent on regional patrons and their respective geopolitical games.
 The Parliament had already extended its mandate on May 2014.
 Paul Salem, “Framing post‐war Lebanon: Perspectives on the constitution and the structure of power”, Mediterranean Politics 3 (1), 2007: 13-26.