Lebanon News

Time for an election or a whole new system?

File - Lebanese parliament speaker Nabih Berri casts his vote to elect the new Lebanese president in the parliament building in downtown Beirut April 23, 2014. (REUTERS/Joseph Eid/Pool)

It appears as if the doors have closed for the most high-profile Maronite leaders to make it to the presidential palace. Consequently, matters have moved on to the second stage, which involves electing a consensual candidate in order to prevent a presidential vacuum.

Significant renewed activity has been noted among the top tier of the Maronite leadership as they search for common denominators within the Christian political community to reach an agreement on the next president.

Sources following up on the issue believe that the clear affiliation of current presidential hopefuls along with the farcical parliamentary sessions that have failed so far to elect a president mean that it is time to move on to “Plan B,” which would entail political groups abandoning their hawks and beginning earnest discussions to elect a consensual, centrist figure.

A diplomatic source in Beirut said that in parallel with U.S. Ambassador David Hale’s communication with Lebanese leaders and his visit last week to Saudi Arabia, there had also been notable and high-ranking contacts made between the U.S. and France over the presidential election.

The source spoke of “a workshop to elect a president before May 25 held in Paris,” noting that France did not have any preferred candidate but was interested in a purely Lebanese agreement on a president to enhance the chances of “Lebanon-izing” the election.

This is with the hope that political party leaders as a whole, and Christian leaders in particular, will take more responsibility during this sensitive time.

The source also pointed to visits and discussions concerning the subject being conducted in the French capital between Lebanese and international figures.

The source told The Daily Star about an important meeting held last week between a high-ranking U.S. official and French President Francois Hollande’s adviser for Middle Eastern affairs, Emmanuel Bonn, which focused on the importance of fostering the necessary conditions to elect a president in Lebanon.

This is in addition to hints that secret French-Iranian talks have been occurringin parallel with U.S.-French discussions. Up until now, there appears to be no clear U.S. road map for how to deal with the Lebanon file, and the talks have yet to address details.

The diplomatic source did not hide his fear that those torpedoing the presidential election were trying to cause a lengthy vacuum in both the presidency and other institutions, primarily the Cabinet. He said it was possible that if no one was elected to the presidency and the Cabinet took over the president’s powers, March 8 ministers would withdraw from the government at that point.

The state would then no longer represent national unity and there would be a caretaker government in place.

MPs might also fail to extend Parliament’s term, which is set to expire again in November and the country’s political system would once more fall into total stagnation.

All sides thus have to face the possibility of a conference to reconsider the Lebanese political system, something Hezbollah may be seeking in order to secure a better share in power and to pre-empt any regional compromise that could occur at its expense.

In this regard, sources close to Salam said the prime minister preferred the presidential election to be held on time rather than have his Cabinet manage a vacuum.

Those close to the prime minister expressed hope that Salam would be renominated for the premiership after his government resigns following the election a new president was elected, especially as the current Cabinet has proved its merit in various fields in spite of its short mandate.

Concerning the Future Movement’s position, one of the party’s Christian MPs said a few days ago during a reception dinner: “I would rather cut off my hand then cast a ballot for [Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel] Aoun.” He was commenting on the prospect of a possible agreement between former Prime Minister Saad Hariri and the Change and Reform bloc leader that would lead to his election as president.

The MP went on to say that the decisionon the presidential candidate needed to be a Christian one first and a national one second and that this was what Hariri had told Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai during their meeting in Paris last month.

The MP also noted that the 1989 peace accord that brought the 15-year Civil War to an end was signed in Taif, Saudi Arabia, and that the accord signed in May 2008, which allowed President Michel Sleiman to be elected, was signed in Doha, Qatar.

“Where will we go this time in light of all these problems in the regional arena? Will we go to Muscat?” he asked.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 10, 2014, on page 2.




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