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Names, but no consensus ahead of presidential polls
President Michel Sleiman, center, attends a ceremony in honor of former presidents in Baabda, Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013. (The Daily Star/Dalati Nohra, HO)
President Michel Sleiman, center, attends a ceremony in honor of former presidents in Baabda, Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013. (The Daily Star/Dalati Nohra, HO)
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Several names have been floated ahead of the countdown to the presidential election, but seasoned political observers say rival factions are unlikely to reach a consensus before President Michel Sleiman’s mandate expires on May 25.

In years past, the major Christian power brokers – namely the political parties and, to a lesser degree, the Maronite Church and certain Christian business interests – reached a consensus before Speaker Nabih Berri called for a session to elect a new president. This does not take into account the years of the Syrian presence, when Damascus extended the mandates of presidents when it suited it, as was the case with Elias Harawi and later Emile Lahoud.

Political sources told The Daily Star it was still early for the real electoral battle to begin, pointing out that candidates were often named at the last minute and that the competition would not get heated before March, which is the earliest time Berri could call for a session to elect a new president.

According to the Constitution, any Maronite who has held Lebanese citizenship for at least 10 years may be elected with two-thirds of the vote in Parliament. However, the current political impasse has seasoned political observers doubtful that the rival Christians of March 8 and March 14 will agree on a consensus candidate.

Moreover, several prominent Christian leaders have raised their voices against the meddling of foreign powers. Those powers are well known and include the United States, France, Egypt, Syria and several Gulf countries, particularly Saudi Arabia. Each of these players wields influence according to the factions with which they have formed an alliance, but they also pursue their own agendas and traditionally seek to secure assurances from the new president that he will not, at the very least, interfere with or damage their interests, and preferably champion them.

Several Christian figures have warned against electing a “weak” president chosen by foreign interests or regional agreements. Most have also come out against extending Sleiman’s mandate.

The alternative is a Maronite Christian who enjoys broad, bipartisan support from both March 14 and March 8, or at the very least is seen as neutral.

The name of former Foreign Minister Jean Obeid continues to be floated as a possible consensus candidate. Although he appears to enjoy the support of Berri, his chances depend on the major Christian figures and their willingness to compromise.

Other candidates include military and business figures, such as Army commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi and Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh, in addition to several other prominent banking figures.

Some of the most popular, but also the most divisive, names include Michel Aoun, Samir Geagea, Amine Gemayel and Suleiman Franjieh. Less prominent are several independent lawmakers, and eternal candidates such as MP Butros Harb, who enjoys a certain amount of popular support after serving in Parliament for more than 30 years.

The chances of a March 8 Christian becoming the next president depend entirely on the whims of Walid Jumblatt, the sources said, noting that the notoriously mercurial Jumblatt controls the kingmaking bloc in Parliament.

The sources predicted that March 14 and March 8 would fail to reach a consensus, with each alliance putting forth its own candidate. There is also the chance of further splintering, with tensions surfacing recently between Harb and Geagea, and between Geagea and Amin Gemayel.

If Parliament fails to achieve the quorum needed to vote, or the various political factions do not agree on a candidate, then the presidency will be vacant and fights will undoubtedly break out over who has the legal and constitutional right to exercise presidential duties, the current caretaker government or the hypothetical government of Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam. If this happens, the only option may be foreign intervention similar to the Doha Accord, but this time the regional climate may not be accommodating.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 11, 2013, on page 3.
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