March 8-affiliated parliamentary sources confirm that Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun is now certain that President Michel Sleiman will not step down when his term ends and will instead seek to extend or renew his mandate, following last week’s meeting with Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai.
At the meeting, Rai tried to convince Aoun of the benefits of extending Sleiman’s presidency.
The sources also said the patriarch had stressed that the current situation necessitates Sleiman staying on as president, as prospects for holding elections by May 25, when his term expires, were not promising and an extension rather than a political vacuum would better suit the Christian sect.
Such a vacuum, in light of the political crisis, could see a shuffling of roles and a rearrangement of the current political structure, something that could be of serious concern to Christians as this may further weaken their already dwindling powers.
The same sources also said the information available reaffirms that Sleiman seeks to remain in his post, and a team of those close to him were advocating for his extension. This team includes former Ambassador Naji Abi Assi, who is in contact with foreign diplomatic missions; former Minister Khalil Hrawi, who is contacting local political leaders; and former minister Naji Boustani, who has been designated to maintain relations with the Syrian leadership.
The sources also found a decline in Bkirki’s power in determining the fate of the Lebanese presidency, an influence enjoyed by the Maronite Church when Lebanon was under Syrian tutelage, but which has steadily diminished since the Taif Accord.
The sources gave other examples that point to the diminishing influence of Bkirki – the seat of the Maronite Church – in the political arena, including its failure to unite over a common electoral law. Most Christians parties believe the current law puts them at a disadvantage and that most Christian MPs were not actually elected by Christians.
The sources indicated that Rai’s inability to bring Christians together was the reason he left Lebanon at the height of the crisis among Christians regarding the Orthodox law, which the patriarch supported.
The sources said that Bkirki’s declining role could be felt during former Patriarch Nasrallah Butros Sfeir’s time, when then-French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner had asked him to suggest five presidential candidates and none of them were elected.
In fact, Sfeir had refused to nominate or elect a military official to represent the highest Maronite power in the government, and Sleiman was not on his list.
A presidential extension would require the same parliamentary majority as the election of a new president, and it would require that a consensus be reached between the March 8 and March 14 coalitions, so that 86 MPs can elect a president or amend the Constitution in order to extend his mandate.
March 14 powers, with Progressive Socialist Party leader MP Walid Jumblatt as a possible ally, would not be enough to account for a two-thirds quorum, making the option of extension, for now at least, elusive, if not impossible, for both constitutional and political reasons.
But the same sources admitted that from now until the presidential election, if the countries with vested interests in Lebanon do no desire to see it divided, and if talk of an Iranian-American or Iranian-Saudi dialogue bears fruit, this could lead to an agreement to keep Lebanon stable by electing an independent Christian figure or by extending the current president’s mandate.
The current state of the presidential debate can be summed up thus: The March 8 forces are acting with the notion that they have two potential presidential candidates, while the March 14 group doesn’t have a set criterion for a candidate.
The sources confirm that there is an understanding between Aoun and Marada Movement MP Suleiman Franjieh that one will renounce his candidacy if the other receives more parliamentary votes.
In the March 14 camp, there are four potential candidates, which include MP Butros Harb, a persistent candidate since 1995, who presented the program for elections with the late MP Nassib Lahoud in 1998; MP Robert Ghanem, which the Future Movement has repeatedly promoted since 2007; Kataeb party leader Amine Gemayel; and Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea.
Coming to an agreement on one candidate by both the March 8 and March 14 camps seems to be a far-fetched goal at this moment, and will not be any easier by the time the election comes five months from now.