BEIRUT: Tuesday marks the start of the two-month constitutional period for the 13th presidential election since Lebanon’s independence in 1943, a crucial time that is likely to see the country divided along the usual political lines.
According to a gentlemen’s agreement dating back to 1943, the president should be a Maronite. But even with this unspoken rule, competition for the position is intense.
To a large extent, the divisions over the election between the March 8 and March 14 coalitions mirror those that existed in fall 2007 in the weeks leading up to President Emile Lahoud’s departure from Baabda Palace.
As a result, potential presidential contenders from both camps are nearly the same as they were then, with each of the two alliances having announced its intention to support one candidate. MPs Michel Aoun and Sleiman Frangieh continue to be strong candidates for March 8, while Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, Kataeb Party head Amine Gemayel and MP Boutros Harb are the front-runners from March 14.
But most of these hopefuls would have to overcome negative images dating back to Lebanon’s bloody 1975-90 Civil War as well as fierce political opposition in order to win enough votes, a problem that does not dramatically affect centrist figures such as Army Commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi, Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh and former ministers Jean Obeid and Ziyad Baroud. Similarly, although MP Robert Ghanem is a March 14 lawmaker, his moderate stance could mean he has a better chance of winning the backing of the March 8 alliance than other potential March 14 candidates.
Of course, a presidential vacuum is always a possibility given the sharp divisions between the two rival camps. Lebanon has witnessed two presidential vacuums since 1943, most recently for about five months before the election of Sleiman in May 2008. A longer vacuum occurred during the Civil War, lasting from September 1988 to November 1989.
According to Sami Nader, an economist and Middle Eastern affairs analyst, the election of a new Lebanese president requires an Iranian-Saudi settlement similar to the one that led to birth of Prime Minister Tammam Salam’s government last month.
“A microsettlement between Iran and Saudi Arabia led to the formation of the Cabinet. Now, a macrosettlement is required to allow the election of a new president,” Nader told The Daily Star.
“We’re talking about a different timeline. The scope of the deal should be wider because it is about a six-year term.”
Nader added that any such settlement between Iran and Saudi Arabia would maintain the balance of power between March 8 and March 14 in Lebanon as a result of the absence of a clear victor in the civil war raging between the Syrian regime and the rebels next door.
“This makes me believe neither a March 8 nor a March 14 candidate will become a president. We will have someone at equal distance from everybody because the regional balance of power is not changing,” Nader said.
The new president’s work would primarily be to address the security and socio-economic repercussions of the civil war in neighboring Syria, Nader said, as the conflict there does not appear to be ending anytime soon. Reforming and relaunching the National Dialogue would come after this, he added.
Karim Pakradouni, a former head of the Kataeb Party and adviser to the late President Elias Sarkis, pointed out that historically there were local and regional factors that determined who would become the president of Lebanon.
“He [the president] should at least enjoy the support of two major sects, one Christian and one Muslim. Although [late President] Bachir Gemayel was supported by the majority of Christians, he couldn’t have been elected without the backing of [Shiite] Speaker Kamel Asaad,” Pakradouni said.
Gemayel was killed before he could be officially sworn in by Parliament, meaning that Lebanon has had 12 elections, but only 11 presidents have been officially sworn in.
As for external factors, Pakradouni, also a former minister, highlighted the role of the U.S. and Egypt in deciding who ruled Lebanon during the reign of late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel-Nasser (1956-70).
“Then it was the U.S. and Syria since the start of Lebanon’s Civil War and up to 2005,” he said.
“I believe the U.S. and Iran will have a prominent role now, particularly that there are ongoing U.S.-Iranian negotiations.”
Pakradouni said that both the U.S. and Iran supported holding presidential election on time.
“U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon David Hale made efforts to facilitate the formation of the government, and I believe he is now trying to facilitate presidential election,” Pakradouni said. He suggested that this was because America was currently focused on Syria and did not want to see instability spread further into Lebanon.
Pakradouni added that Iran was also interested in seeing a new president in Lebanon, since Hezbollah, its major ally in the country, wanted this as well.
“Hezbollah is always in need of support from the legitimate Lebanese institutions. This is why it is always joining the government and having MPs,” Pakradouni said.
He added that Hezbollah benefited from a president who supported the resistance and would further give legitimacy to the party and its actions.
All-around Christian support for an election is also a factor, and Pakradouni said he believed all Christian MPs were committed to taking part in order to avoid a lack of quorum.
But despite clear international and regional support for a new president in Lebanon, Pakradouni said it was uncertain which potential candidates were most likely to be successful.
“This will become evident in the last two weeks of the two-month period,” he said. “I believe we need a capable and patriotic figure enjoying popular support, [someone] who can restore the role and give momentum to the presidency. He should be able to unite the Lebanese and influence the decision-making process.”