Lebanon – 58 days without a President

Lebanon has been without a head of state since 25 May, when the six-year mandate of the former president, Michel Suleiman, came to an end. This is because the parliament was unable to elect a new president. Even as all political parties have now formally agreed to overcome the presidential stalemate, this power vacuum is unlikely to be filled anytime soon. This crisis may affect the entire political and security equilibrium of the country and also put into question the Lebanese “consociational democracy” model.

What is especially worrying about the current presidential stalemate is that it comes on top of another major institutional crisis: the failure to elect a new parliament. The term of the previous parliament ended on 20 June 2013 but, due to disagreements over how to manage the spillover from the Syrian war, the political forces could not agree on holding fresh parliamentary elections. Instead, the parliament opted for an extra-constitutional fix by extending its own mandate until 20 November 2014, thus forgoing popular consultation. The democratic (un)suitability of this political solution was never put in question. The next parliamentary polls are scheduled in November 2014, but, as the two-month-old presidential stalemate lingers on, it seems highly unlikely that elections will be held by then. This may, in turn, entail postponing the election of a new government to replace the current interim cabinet led by Premier Tammam Salam.

With the deterioration of democratic legitimacy of the whole institutional system and an inability to overcome the political impasse, Lebanon’s already intractable problems may become impossible to manage, thus leading to a security collapse. To name but a few, these problems include: Syrian refugees in Lebanon that are expected to soon reach 1.5 million (in a country of 4 million people); car bombs every few months hitting strategic areas of the country; increasing sectarian clashes; fighting between the Army and Islamist militias along the Lebanese-Syrian borders since several months. As if this did not suffice, the general geopolitical landscape of the Arab Levant is falling apart, after the ISIL (Islamic State for Iraq and the Levant) took over Iraq and around 35% of the Syrian territory, proclaiming the birth of the Islamic caliphate.

Against this backdrop, on17 July, the former Sunni Prime Minister and leader of the al-Mustaqbal movement, Saad Hariri, giving televised speech from his residence in the Saudi city of Jeddah, outlined a road map to “preserve Lebanon’s stability”. In his speech, Hariri called for the start of consultations between the two parliamentary blocs of ‘14 March’ and ‘8 March’. However, he ended up by further dividing the two political sides. It is important to note here that, according to the National Pact – an unwritten agreement that regulates the distribution of power among the three main confessional groups— the President of Lebanon has to be a Christian Maronite, while the Prime Minister a Sunni and the speaker of parliament a Sh’ia. But while Hariri’s roadmap has been approved by his Christian ally, the Kataeb member Samir Geagea, who is part of the ’14 March’ bloc and one of the Presidential candidates, the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and member of the ‘8 March’ bloc Michel Aoun accused Hariri of discarding tout court his proposal for solving the presidential crisis. Indeed, on 30 June, Aoun had proposed amending the constitution so that the Lebanese people, thus not the parliament, could directly elect the head of state. Aoun’s proposal foresees two election rounds whereby in the first round only Christians can vote, and in the second ballot the two candidates with the most votes would face all Lebanese voters.

However, the 14 March bloc rejected Aoun’s plan, with the approval of Samir Geagea. The fear lurking in the background of these exchanges is that Aoun, who is supported by Hezbollah and the Shi’a community in Lebanon, which is the largest Lebanese community, would easily get elected president through direct polls. In other words, intra-Christian rivalry seems to further exacerbate the dispute between Sunni and Shi’a, respectively represented by the Hariri-led 14 March and the Hezbollah-dominated 8 March.

The dangerous side-effect of this intractable division among the Christians is twofold: not only could a protracted presidential vacuum continue to hinder the proper functioning of the parliament and the government, but it may also challenge the viability of the National Pact. In other words, it might jeopardize the pillar of Lebanon’s consociational system, based on a division of powers among Christians, Sunni and Shi’a. And all this is not at all to the benefit of secularism, but creates room to what seems to be more and more a zero-sum game between the Sunni and the Sh’ia in Lebanon, and in the whole Levant.

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