Lebanon’s parliament has elected a former army general as president, following a surprising shift in allegiances across the country’s divided political parties.
The vote on 31 October 2016, the 46th since President Michel Suleiman’s term came to an end in May 2014, produced the required two-thirds majority in favour of Michel Aoun. The vote breaks the political deadlock that has left many state institutions barely functioning and prevented legislation from being passed for more than two years.
In the country’s sectarian power-sharing arrangement, the presidency is reserved for a Maronite Christian, the prime minister must be a Sunni Muslim and the parliamentary speaker a Shia Muslim. This formula dates back to 22 November 1943, when the National Pact, an unwritten agreement that established the political foundations of post-independence Lebanon, allocated political power according to a confessional system based on the 1932 census.
Efforts to change this system were at the centre of Lebanese politics for decades. The three religious groups most favoured by the pact sought to preserve it, whereas those who saw themselves as disadvantaged sought either to revise it after updating key demographic data or abolish it entirely. This resulted in a failed rebellion in 1958 and a civil war that broke out in 1975 and lasted for almost 15 years. Nonetheless, in what marked the beginning of the end of the civil war, many of the provisions of the National Pact were codified in the 1989 Taef Agreement, perpetuating sectarianism as a key element of Lebanese political life.
The Lebanese constitution gives parliament the right to elect a president for a single six-year term. After Suleiman stepped down, parliament convened 45 times but failed to elect a successor due to the lack of a quorum. According to Article 49 of the constitution, the president shall be elected by secret ballot and a two-thirds majority of the Chamber of Deputies (the parliament). After a first ballot, an absolute majority shall be sufficient. In the absence of a provision designating the quorum needed to elect the president, the constitution is open to interpretation. One interpretation suggests that a quorum constituting a majority of 50 per cent plus one (that required for any meeting of parliament) is sufficient for a parliamentary presidential electoral meeting. Another argues that the quorum is a two-thirds majority of the total members (128) of parliament.
The different interpretations of Article 49 were used mainly by Shia Hezbollah MPs and their allies of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) as reasons to delay the election process. They repeatedly boycotted the parliamentary sessions, because they could not guarantee the election of their candidate, Michel Aoun, founder of the FPM and an army general during the civil war, as president. The opposing camp led by Sunni former Prime Minister Saad Hariri initially nominated the head of the Lebanese Forces (LF) Samir Geagea, Aoun’s Christian arch-rival and long-time political nemesis. However, Hariri and Geagea also failed to gather the two-thirds majority needed to elect Geagea.
In an attempt to break the deadlock, Hariri, head of the March 14 alliance’s Future Movement and the biggest parliamentary bloc, announced in February 2016 he was endorsing Sleiman Frangieh of the March 8’s Marada Movement for president. Hariri hoped that support for Frangieh, who has close ties to Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, would encourage Hezbollah to rally around Frangieh and in so doing destroy the Hezbollah-FPM alliance that forms the cornerstone of the March 8 coalition. The initiative failed and the deadlock remained.
In retaliation, and compounded by the bitter relationship between Geagea and Frangieh – the latter accuses Geagea of assassinating his father in 1978 in what became known as the ‘Ehden massacre’ – Geagea endorsed Aoun. After nearly 30 years of conflict and communication breakdowns, which reached a head during the civil war, the two Christian leaders announced their cooperation, in what was seen as a ‘historical’ reconciliation.
With the support of Geagea, himself still a presidential candidate, Aoun’s chances of being elected increased. Yet Frangieh refused to step aside, restricting the presidential race to himself and Aoun. Hezbollah and FPM continued to boycott the parliamentary sessions. Hezbollah has long been accused by political analysts and March 14 politicians of preferring a political vacuum over any president. But Aoun had always been Hezbollah’s number one candidate, even after Hariri endorsed Frangieh.
Hariri officially announced he was backing Frangieh in February 2016. He continued to back him until October 2016, when he realized it would be impossible to attract the required quorum if the candidate was anyone other than Aoun.
Hariri said on 21 October 2016, he had decided to endorse his former rival because all other options had been exhausted, adding that Lebanon needs protecting from the crisis in neighbouring Syria. Analysts suspect that the two made a deal that could mean the return of Hariri as prime minister, a move designed to ensure the future of both men’s political careers.
The election of the 81-year-old military veteran marks the end of the decade-long struggle waged by Hariri and his allies against the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, a struggle in which Saudi Arabia’s financial and political support has been crucial. But with the kingdom’s regional priorities shifting towards confronting Iran in Yemen, Bahrain and Syria, and a shrinking budget due to the global fall in oil prices, that support is drying up.
For years, the Saudi monarchy and its Sunni Lebanese allies opposed a greater political role for Aoun. Yet as Riyadh became mired in protracted wars in the region, Saudi officials quietly acknowledged that Lebanon was no longer a priority, paving the way for Aoun’s ascent to the presidency.
Nevertheless, it is in the interests of both Iran and Saudi Arabia to keep a close eye on how the election results play out, as neither wants another conflict on their doorstep.