BEIRUT: Parliament’s failure to elect a president shows that no head of state will be appointed without a regional rapprochement involving Saudi Arabia and Iran, Lebanese experts and analysts said.
It also exposed the deep rifts among the country’s political elites and the near-certainty that provocative candidates from either side of the political divide will not be elected to the presidency, they said.
“That is the bad habit in the Lebanese political system, that the president is elected before you go to the Parliament,” said Sami Nader, a Lebanese economist and Middle East affairs analyst.
President Michel Sleiman’s six-year term ends in May. A 60-day period of consultation began last month to elect a new president.
The new president must win two-thirds of the vote in Lebanon’s 128-member national assembly.
Speaker Nabih Berri convened Parliament Wednesday to elect a president. The March 14 candidate, Samir Geagea, earned just 48 votes, ahead of the centrist candidate Henry Helou. Most of the members of the March 8 coalition handed in a blank ballot, choosing to cast an empty vote rather than pick a candidate to stand against Geagea.
Berri scheduled a second session next week.
Lebanon’s president has traditionally been chosen through compromises involving foreign powers with stakes in the country, and experts say Wednesday’s vote is a sign that such a trend will continue.
Mario Abou Zeid, an expert on Lebanese politics at the Carnegie Middle East Center, said the vote was significant because it marked the first time since the 1970s that MPs tried to elect a president independently of foreign powers.
But the vote’s failure made it “obvious” that none of the candidates were capable of securing two thirds of the vote.
With the coming sessions, “the presidential game will actually start,” Abou Zeid said.
The “purely Lebanese action” of the first session will now likely expand to involve regional powers, he said, adding that they will become increasingly involved in the process of selecting the president as well as March 8’s choice of candidate.
Nader said the session’s failure to elect a president was not a surprise, but the stark divisions are a sign both that little has changed in how Lebanon elects its presidents and how deep the chasm runs between the country’s political elites.
“Nothing has changed and the president to come should be the result of a compromise between the regional forces that is translated in the Parliament,” he said.
The 52 blank ballots cast in Wednesday’s vote are a sign of a deeper dysfunction in Lebanon’s political system, he said.
“Something fundamentally is going wrong,” he added.
Geagea’s failure to secure the nomination was widely expected, given his controversial past and criticism of Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria.
He was arrested in 1994 over his suspected involvement in a bomb attack on the Our Lady of Salvation Church the same year and was sentenced to life imprisonment over his alleged involvement in the assassination of Prime Minister Rashid Karami in June 1987.
Hilal Khashan, a professor of political studies at the American University of Beirut, said Geagea’s campaign was likely an attempt to present him as a conventional politician to the Lebanese, rather than with an explicit aim to win the presidency.
The uncertainty of who will be elected is likely to persist in the coming weeks, he said.
Next week’s session may not be held due to a lack of quorum, and if it were held would likely fail to elect a president, he said.
The ultimate winner is likely, once again, to be a candidate chosen by consensus on the back of a regional agreement that involves Saudi Arabia and Iran, he said.
Khashan said the failure of any candidate to secure the required two-thirds of the vote showed that a consensus candidate was the “only way.”
But he expressed optimism that a consensus candidate could be found, saying the country’s mood favored compromise.
He cited the recent formation of a national unity government including the March 8 and 14 coalitions, as well as the cooperation between Hezbollah and the Future Movement’s interior minister, Nouhad Machnouk, on relieving border towns in danger due to the crisis in Syria.
“The mood right now is to calm the situation in Lebanon,” he said.
Other analysts agreed that the coming sessions, if held, would pave the way for a consensus candidate and eliminate the stronger personalities that may be seen as provocative to either side of the political divide.
Nader said the coming presidential votes will be aimed at “getting rid of what we call the strong candidates and will pave the way for a new profile of a candidate, a candidate that could get along with everyone and not be seen as a provocation.”
Nader agreed a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran remained “necessary” before a new president was chosen, but said there was no longer fear the security situation would spiral out of control if the constitutional deadline to elect a president passed with no compromise.
He said the existing unity Cabinet offers a safety net for Lebanon if MPs fail to choose its next head of state.