Echoes of past crises make election stalemate all too familiar

File - Members of the Hilf, Eddeh, Chamoun and Gemayel and their political allies. (Camille Chamoun Facebook Page)

BEIRUT: History seems to be repeating itself with regard to the presidential election stalemate more than four decades ago. The need to find a compromise candidate for the presidency has been a hallmark of Lebanon’s turbulent political history almost since the country gained independence from France in 1943. So has been the need to maintain national unity to face internal and external challenges, including persistent Israeli threats.

With Parliament set to hold its first session Wednesday to elect a new president, signs indicate that none of the potential candidates from the March 14 coalition or the Hezbollah-led March 8 alliance could secure the votes of two-thirds of the 128-member legislature, as required to win the presidency.

Nor is the attendance of two-thirds of lawmakers, which is necessary to convene Parliament, guaranteed, given a history of MPs’ boycotting parliamentary sessions to thwart a quorum.

Furthermore, officials from both sides of the political spectrum rule out the election of a new president in the absence of a local, regional and international consensus over who should fill the role.

The inability to decide on the presidential election without foreign interference highlights the urgency of finding a consensus or compromise candidate acceptable to the two rival factions if the country is to avoid a vacuum in the presidency seat by May 25, when President Michel Sleiman’s six-year term in office expires.

A piece by this reporter titled “Presidential campaign: indications show deadlock possible,” which was published in The Daily Star on July 23, 1970, focused on the presidential battle pitting the Nahjists (supporters of former President Fouad Chehab) against the Hilf, a reference to the then-Tripartite Alliance grouping former President Camille Chamoun, Kataeb party leader Pierre Gemayel and National Bloc chief Raymond Edde.

In addition to the bitter rivalry between Chehab and Chamoun within the Maronite community which subsequently split the Lebanese into two rival camps, the article highlighted inter-Lebanese divisions and stressed the need for national unity to face the common enemy, Israel.

“The division and hatred caused by the two men, as represented by the Chehabist camp and the Chamounist camp, their possible nomination and the possible win of either side, might well widen the gap between the two camps, and would further separate the Lebanese in these trying times, when national unity is so much needed and the Lebanese must unite to face the common enemy lurking across the border,” the article said.

It further warned that both Chamoun and Chehab risked “Lebanon’s stability in their bids for the presidency,” and noted “a confessional atmosphere” that prevailed in the country as a result of deep national divisions over the armed Palestinian presence in Lebanon.

While Muslim parties supported the Palestinians’ cause along with their right to keep their arms to defend themselves against Israeli attacks, the country’s major Christian parties staunchly opposed the armed Palestinian presence and called on the government to put an end to it.

Now, more than four decades later, the Lebanese – who have never been united on substantial issues – have replaced their split over the armed Palestinian presence with sharp divisions over Hezbollah’s arsenal, as well as the party’s military intervention in Syria to shore up President Bashar Assad’s forces.

Similarly, the fierce power struggle between the Nahjists and the Tripartite Alliance in the 1970s over the presidency seat has been replaced by a seemingly fiercer struggle between the March 8 and March 14 coalitions, each of which is fighting to ensure that the country’s top Christian post is won by its own candidate.

Likewise, calls for national unity and all-embracing reconciliation to face internal challenges and external dangers threatening the country’s stability and security have been an enduring fixture in Lebanon’s volatile political history.

Such calls have been made recently on an almost daily basis by the country’s political and religious leaders, as Lebanon faced threats of sectarian strife and destabilization as a result of the bloody spillover of the Syrian war.

In what appears to demonstrate that history is repeating itself, a quote in the 1970 article said: “This country must close its ranks, especially as it enjoys a democratic system and because in view of the different religious sects and communities living in it, a confessional atmosphere is liable from time to time to dominate the country, largely as a result of exploitation of the situation by politicians and opportunist elements.”

“As long as national reconciliation is difficult to reach among the various political factions, naturally the question arises that the next president should be a compromise person for all as there are many problems waiting for someone to resolve and Lebanon has a future waiting for someone to build up.”

“At this moment, Lebanon is passing through a very delicate stage that requires caution, calm and reason. The Lebanese will also need self-restraint in the coming elections in order to strengthen stability and avoid political upheavals.”

Eventually, the 1970 presidential deadlock was broken with the election of Hilf-backed Sleiman Frangieh as president by a margin of one vote against the Chehabist candidate Elias Sarkis.

What I wrote back in 1970 applies to the unstable political and security situation along with the deep national divisions found in today’s Lebanon.

In recent months, Lebanese leaders from both sides of the political divide have warned that the country stood at “a very dangerous crossroads” that required national unity to save it.

Others warned that Lebanon was going through “a critical, delicate and sensitive stage” in its history that demanded vigilance and unity of its citizens to ride out the “dangerous crisis” threatening its existence.

With the Lebanese sharply divided over Hezbollah’s arsenal and the party’s military involvement in Syria, as well as the Syrian conflict itself, the presidential election could open a window of opportunity for the rival parties to agree on a consensus or compromise president.

Political analysts say a new president elected with a majority vote by lawmakers from both the March 8 and March 14 parties would be better suited and more qualified than other presidential candidates to sponsor national reconciliation among the various political factions and boost the national unity that the country badly needs in order to meet internal and external challenges.

Nevertheless, the forthcoming parliamentary sessions to elect a new president will reveal which direction the political winds will blow, as well as whether Lebanon will have a president elected as a result of inter-Lebanese consensus, or a challenging president with all the dire consequences this would entail for the country’s fragile stability and precarious unity.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 23, 2014, on page 2.




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