BEIRUT: Despite the gloomy political outlook and profound differences between the country’s rival leaders, analysts expect a last-minute regional and international agreement to facilitate the election of a new head of state in May 2014.
Yet, other analysts rule out any foreign intervention in the presidential vote, saying that regional and international powers are too preoccupied with the turmoil in the region and the war in Syria to deal with the Lebanese crisis.
Lebanon has entered the presidential electioneering year amid warnings of grave consequences for the country’s stability if a new president is not elected on time.
Next year’s presidential battle is deemed crucial for the country’s stability, as Lebanon faces tough security challenges and deep national divisions threatening its unity caused by the ramifications of the 32-month war in Syria.
The presidential vote comes as the country has been left without a functioning government for over eight months and a paralyzed Parliament has been unable to meet due to a lack of quorum.
The latest warning was issued Tuesday by Speaker Nabih Berri, who said that failure to elect a new president would destroy Lebanon given the paralysis in the Cabinet and Parliament.
“All lawmakers must attend the [Parliament] session to elect a new president, even those traveling abroad,” Berri said in remarks published by Al-Joumhouria newspaper. “In light of the vacuum in government and a crippled Parliament, if we fail to elect a new president we would be destroying the country.”
Hisham Jaber, a retired Lebanese Army general, ruled out the possibility of the country falling into a presidential vacuum, predicting a deal between regional and international powers just in time to facilitate the election of a new president.
“I don’t see the country slipping into a constitutional vacuum because I expect a last-minute regional and international deal to facilitate the election of a new president,” Jaber, director of the Middle East Center for Political Studies and Research, a Beirut-based think tank, told The Daily Star.
Jaber said last month’s deal between Iran and Western powers over Tehran’s nuclear program would definitely help in facilitating the presidential election in Lebanon despite Saudi rage over the deal.
“Certainly, Saudi Arabia, which felt disappointed with the Iran nuclear deal, is capable of obstructing the presidential vote in Lebanon through its [March 14]. But the Americans would intervene to exert pressure on the Saudis to prevent any obstruction,” he said.
“Logic says that an American-Iranian rapprochement will serve stability in the Gulf region, something which Saudi Arabia has been working for. But Saudi Arabia feels that its influence in the Gulf region and the Middle East will recede in favor of Iran as a result of the nuclear deal,” Jaber added.
Abdallah Bou Habib, Lebanon’s former ambassador to the U.S., disagreed, ruling out any regional or international intervention in the presidential vote.
“The presidential election is becoming more a Lebanese decision than a regional and international deal. Regional and international powers are too busy with more important issues than the Lebanese presidential election,” Bou Habib told The Daily Star.
Bou Habib, director of the Issam Fares Center for Lebanon, a Beirut-based think tank, said the Big Powers and Saudi Arabia are “indifferent” to the situation in Lebanon.
“The U.S. would like to see stability and a new government formed in Lebanon. This means that they accept any joint Lebanese decision,” he said.
Bou Habib said Lebanon was heading for a presidential vacuum if the four top Maronite leaders – former President Amin Gemayel, MP Michel Aoun, Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea and Marada Movement chief MP Suleiman Franjieh – did not convince their Muslim allies to attend a Parliament session to elect a new head of state.
The four, who belong to the rival March 8 and March 14 camps, have long been presidential hopefuls.
“If the four leaders did not act to convince their allies to participate in a Parliament session to elect a new president, we will be going to a presidential vacuum,” Bou Habib said.
The influential Catholic Maronite Church, which had played a key role in the past in supporting candidates to the country’s top post customarily held by a Maronite, has voiced concerns over the possibility of Parliament failing to elect a new head of state.
Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai has repeatedly called for a new president to be elected on time.
President Michel Sleiman’s six-year-term in office expires on May 25. The two-month constitutional period for Parliament to meet to elect a new head of state begins on March 25.
“Patriarch Rai is demanding a president who can salvage Lebanon and who possesses a vision to keep Lebanon away from the fires raging in the region,” Hares Chehab, secretary-general of the Islamic-Christian National Dialogue Committee, told The Daily Star.
Chehab, who represents the Maronite patriarch on the Dialogue Committee, said next year’s presidential election gained special significance “because the country is in a state of stagnation, the future outlook is gloomy and the Lebanese are sharply divided.”
“If the Lebanese fail to unite, the country is heading for ruin,” he said.
He said if a new president was not elected on time, “the country would plunge into a vacuum for a short period during which rival political leaders would act to remedy the situation.”
“A presidential vacuum would cause a very strong shock to the political leaders, who would feel the gravity of the situation, prompting them to act,” Chehab said.
He added that he believed rival political leaders were destined to reach agreement on the presidential election “once they feel that they are in the circle of danger.”
Talal Atrissi, a Lebanese University lecturer with expertise on Iran and the Middle East, said the presidential race had overshadowed divisions over the conflict in Syria and attempts to form a new Cabinet.
“The presidential election is gaining priority these days in light of growing fears that the country might plunge into full vacuum in all constitutional institutions if a new president was not elected on time,” Atrissi told The Daily Star.
With the chances of extending Sleiman’s mandate being ruled out, Atrissi said, Lebanon was faced with two choices: “Either the election of a new president or a constitutional vacuum that would have grave consequences on the already complicated situation under a resigned Cabinet.”
Atrissi said if Lebanese leaders and regional and international powers failed to reach a consensus on the election of a new president, the only option left was for the Hezbollah-led March 8 alliance along with MP Walid Jumblatt to nominate a candidate to the country’s top post who would not provoke the rival March 14 camp.
“This option is possible if the Americans exert pressure on Jumblatt,” he said.
Atrissi warned that if for some reason a new president is not elected on time, “ Lebanon is heading for further deterioration at the security, political and economic levels under a resigned Cabinet which is unable to meet.”
Sleiman, who has repeatedly voiced opposition to an extension of his term, said Monday he was confident that a new head of state would be elected on time despite fears that Parliament might not be able to meet to choose a successor to him.
“A strong president is the one who tells the truth, does not appease anyone and is impartial and transparent,” Sleiman said.