By Marwan Asmar
There is little sign that Lebanese lawmakers will pick a president to rule their country in the near future. It seems as if they are happy the way things are, even after eight parliamentary sessions failed to garner consensus on a would-be president.
Meanwhile, a constitutional void is widening by the day, but that doesn’t seem to be worrying Members of the Parliament, or the sects and parties they belong to.
With Michel Aoun having left the presidential palace on Oct. 30, and no clear name emerging on a replacement, almost every week for the past month, there was a voting session to choose a president.
Parliament remains to be split in the middle, with deputies expressing varying views. Lawmakers either returned blank papers, some mocked the process by writing far out names, and others just supported their own.
In the 128-seat parliament, none of the candidates received the 65 minimum vote needed to choose a president, despite having a minimal 85-member quorum needed to hold a session for the beleaguered presidential post.
At one end of the spectrum, the Iranian-allied Muslim Shiite Hezbollah group wants a candidate who would protect the “revolution” and is in no hurry to find that person.
And, on the other end is Samir Geagea of the Lebanese Forces and his other allies, who support Michel Moawad’s candidacy.
Moawad is the son of the former Lebanese president, Rene, who was killed in 1989, two weeks after taking office. Now, the son is looking for a president for all of Lebanon, or this is at least what he says.
Choosing a president has become a difficult chore for the country. Before Aoun was elected in 2016, it took MPs 30 months, during which they convened 46 parliamentary sessions, to vote him in office. The process was done through horse-trading with Hezbollah, but was no easy task.
Aoun and his Maronite Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) allowed Hezbollah an almost a free hand in the affairs of the state, gaining political power in the government and different state institutions. The development upset Sunni Muslims, whose prime minister is always chosen from his own faction, and the various Christian denominations under Lebanon’s 1943 political charter drawn up by the country’s sects.
With the end of the Aoun’s presidential tenure after six years in office, Hezbollah is switching its alliances once again. It no longer wants to ally with Aoun’s party whose leader is Gibran Bassil, but is looking to support Sulieman Frangieh, a Christian politician with pro-Syrian leanings.
But the day is young, and nobody is expecting a president to be chosen anytime soon. The Lebanese political elites are famous for their “wait-and-see” attitude as long as it doesn’t upset the balance of power.
Choosing a president is no longer an easy matter. This time around, the foot-dragging on a new president is complicating a very sensitive and difficult situation because of the economic crisis, which Lebanon is reeling under, and has been so since 2019. The World Bank and international donors will not unlock badly needed funds to shore up the country’s stagnant economy.
And, they won’t do that anytime soon because of the present political instability and the needed reforms in the country. The situation persists because of the unwillingness of Lebanese politicians to form a new and stable government. After last May’s parliamentary elections, the present government of Najib Mikati started to govern.
But because of its limited caretaker responsibility, it can’t introduce new laws until there is a permanent cabinet, and that must be chosen by parliament and formally endorsed by the president.
The situation slowly becomes more complicated because when Aoun resigned last October, he sought to force the Mikati government to resign. But that was rejected by the legislature and its speaker, Nabih Berri. They argued that forcing the caretaker government to resign would create a real constitutional crisis. They opted to keep it in place to run urgent government business in its caretaker capacity.
Today, Mikati seeks to move one step further, holding regular cabinet sessions to continue to run government business. But he appears to be facing obstacles from different corners with constitutional wranglings and interpretations. Aoun’s FPM, for instance, doesn’t believe he should do that because it would effectively means a fully-functional government without proper constitutional endorsements.
So, we’d better wait and see.