BEIRUT

Analysis

Vacuum might not stop at the presidency, experts warn

Lebanese Forces MP Strida Geagea arrives at Parliament in Beirut, Thursday, May 22, 2014. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

BEIRUT: A contagion of political paralysis threatens Lebanon’s institutions and could spread to the Cabinet and Parliament after the failure to elect a president before the Sunday deadline, experts and analysts said.

The deadlock will enshrine foreign interference in Lebanon’s political process and shows the need for constitutional reforms that regulate the nomination and election of the president, the only Christian head of state in the Middle East, they said.

The lack of a consensus choice for the presidency means there will be no head of state elected before Sunday’s deadline, barring a “miracle,” experts said.

“With the end of the deadline on May 25 at midnight, we will be having a vacuum in the presidential seat,” said Mario Abou Zeid, an expert on Lebanese politics at the Carnegie Middle East Center.

MPs failed to elect a president after persistent boycotts by the March 8 bloc, who have refused to attend until a consensus candidate is agreed upon by all parties.

The Cabinet is required to assume the powers of the presidency if the deadline to elect the head of state passes with no resolution.

There is also speculation that some Christian MPs and ministers could boycott Parliament legislative sessions and Cabinet meetings after Sleiman leaves office in protest over the vacuum, raising fears that a presidential void could extend to the executive and legislative authorities.

Lebanon also has to conduct parliamentary elections in November, raising the possibility that the MPs who are expected to elect the president may themselves see their mandate expire amid the vacuum.

Such a broad power vacuum would signal a “total collapse of institutions,” Abou Zeid said.

This scenario would also raise unprecedented questions of constitutional power, in addition to limiting the political influence of the Christian community through the absence of a president.

But the issue of a presidential vacuum also raises deeper, more fundamental questions about the nature of Lebanese democracy and the role of the people in choosing their leaders.

Ultimately, none of the more controversial candidates, like Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun or Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, took part in an impartial contest for parliamentary votes.

Instead, the president is likely to be chosen through compromise.

Sayyed Ibrahim Amin al-Sayyed, a senior political official in Hezbollah, said last week that a form of consensual democracy, rather than “typical democracy” exists in Lebanon.

“This is democracy. People have to run for elections and then MPs decide on who is more eligible,” Abou Zeid said. “When we start these discussions, we are, I believe, changing even the principle of democracy, of having people running for elections.”

Moreover, presidential hopefuls do not have to announce their candidacy in advance or run a campaign that subjects their programs to scrutiny, opening the door to back-room deals and compromises that are open to foreign interference.

“Someone can be nominated during the session and be elected to the presidency,” said Elias Farhat, a retired Lebanese Army general and military strategist.

“This is a fundamental hole in the Constitution,” he said, adding: “Lebanon remains beholden to foreigners since a president can be elected in the last 15 minutes.”

Experts said the Constitution should be amended to regulate the nomination and campaigning process, to avoid such paralysis.

But despite the presidential vacuum, the situation in Lebanon is less fractious than it was in prior presidential crises.

The end of President Amine Gemayel’s term, toward the end of the Civil War in 1988, saw two rival governments battling for control. The crisis that followed the end of President Emile Lahoud’s term in 2007 saw the assumption of power by the government of Fouad Siniora, which lost any veneer of legitimacy after the resignation of its Shiite ministers, and ended with clashes in May 2008 that threatened to spiral into another civil conflict.

“Today, the Lebanese government represents all factions and can take over the authority constitutionally,” Farhat said.

He added that even if Christian ministers and MPs decide to boycott legislative and Cabinet sessions, the paralysis would create pressure toward a timely election.

Experts said a regional consensus would be needed in order to elect a president agreeable to both sides of the political divide. Observers have banked on a regional rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran to defuse tensions between their proxies in Lebanon, the March 14 and March 8 coalitions, respectively, ultimately leading to political compromise.

“That vacuum will extend itself without having a regional consensus on a president who can meet the conditions of the political parties in Lebanon,” said Kamel Wazne, director of the Center for American Strategic Studies in Beirut.

But the best Lebanon could hope for is a defusing of tension that could offer glimmers of hope for a compromise. A broader political reconciliation between the March 8 and March 14 political blocs will require much longer to fulfill, with Saudi Arabia and Iran needing to settle differences throughout the region in Iraq, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria, where the interests of the two regional powers clash.

“We don’t see this happening soon,” Wazne said.

“It’s going to be a while before we see a president and a political process to carry Lebanon forward.”

But Farhat, the retired general, said foreign interference is already pervasive in the presidential election.

“The negotiations to elect the president are happening in Paris, not in Beirut,” he said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 23, 2014, on page 3.

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Summary

A contagion of political paralysis threatens Lebanon's institutions and could spread to the Cabinet and Parliament after the failure to elect a president before the Sunday deadline, experts and analysts said.

The deadlock will enshrine foreign interference in Lebanon's political process and shows the need for constitutional reforms that regulate the nomination and election of the president, the only Christian head of state in the Middle East, they said.

Lebanon also has to conduct parliamentary elections in November, raising the possibility that the MPs who are expected to elect the president may themselves see their mandate expire amid the vacuum.

Instead, the president is likely to be chosen through compromise.

Despite the presidential vacuum, the situation in Lebanon is less fractious than it was in prior presidential crises.

Experts said a regional consensus would be needed in order to elect a president agreeable to both sides of the political divide.

Farhat, the retired general, said foreign interference is already pervasive in the presidential election.


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