The Lebanese Parliament’s Speaker, Nabil Berry, seemed to put an end to the arduous debate about the feasibility of the forthcoming presidential elections when he called for a parliamentary commission to elect the new president on 23 April. Yet it is hard to tell whether this surprising move reflects some emerging agreement about the next president or whether it simply serves as an anchor in turbulent waters. What is nevertheless certain is that next person to occupy the Ba’bda Palace will send a crucial signal about the future (in)stability of the country. Moreover, in the best tradition of Lebanese “permeability”, the next president will be the result of domestic, regional and international negotiations, which represent in and of themselves the biggest obstacle for the integrity of the presidential race. Whilst the effects of the Syrian war are increasingly felt in the overall security and policy-making of the country, the worst possible outcome would be to see multiple internal and external veto points resulting in the postponement of the elections.
As sanctioned in the Lebanese constitution, the future President must be a Christian Maronite from among political figures of the likes of Samir Geagea, Michel Aoun, Amin Gemayel, Suleiman Frangieh, Jean Obeid, Riad Salameh, Boutros Harb, Robert Ghanem, or the Army Chief, Jean Kahwaji. This makes the Maronite Patriarch Bishara Rai one of the most influential figures over the successful candidate. Rai is in discussion with the Vatican, and is likely to give his ‘blessing’ to a man who will not disappoint Damascus. The Patriarch is in fact a major source of legitimacy for Syrian President Bashar al-Asad.
So far, Samir Geagea, the Head of the Lebanese Forces, is the only one to have announced his candidacy for the presidential race. He is a strong ally of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri – the exiled leader of the 14 March bloc in Paris last month – and is not exactly what one would call a unifying figure. He spent 11 years in prison after he was found guilty of ordering four political assassinations. Parliament granted him an amnesty in 2005, after the withdrawal of Syrian military occupation. His recent criticism of Hezbollah makes it difficult for him to be a consensus candidate.
The name of General Michel Aoun, a pillar of the 8 March coalition, has also been widely discussed. He is an ally of Hezbollah, although he has criticised the latter’s role in the war in Syria. He met with Saad Hariri, something that allegedly led to the formation of the Salam Government, after 10 months of political void. His rapprochement to Hariri was meant to pave the way for his candidacy. However, Aoun is widely criticized by many of the 14 March-affiliated, specially the Christians. It is however noteworthy that none of the regional players that are heavily involved in the presidential race through the backdoor – Saudi Arabia, Iran and Syria – seem to be working against Aoun’s candidacy.
Hezbollah’s Secretary General Nasrallah has called on the Parliament to elect a “made-in-Lebanon President”, which is an unusual expectation given Lebanon’s political history and is quite unlikely to happen in the next elections. Iran and Syria will surely opt for a candidate that will not prevent Hezbollah from continuing its support for the Syrian Army in the war against the rebels. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia, which supports the military opposition in Syria and the Sunni-dominated bloc ’14 March’ in Lebanon, is not likely to give its approval, unless Ryad gains some concessions in return. In the meantime, Paris and Washington are also struggling to preserve the country’s fragile stability in light of the on-going Syrian conflict and the fear of radical Islamist groups spreading in the whole Levant, including in Lebanon.
However, the worst scenarios would be either the extension of Michel Suleiman’s mandate – a president who has openly taken part against the 8 March, thus forgoing his above-party commitment to the State and the political system – or the lack of an agreement on the future man in the Baabda Palace. This would mark the beginning of a new wave of violence in a country that barely succeeds in maintaining stability in face of regional turmoil.