BEIRUT: Members of the Free Patriotic Movement are preparing to elect a new president for the first time in party history, but a major disagreement over the powers of the position has already cast a shadow over the race.
On Sept. 20, 16,000 FPM members will vote to elect a president and his first and second deputies.
It is the first election since the party, one of the most powerful Christian groups in the country, was officially formed in 2005, just months after its founder and current leader MP Michel Aoun returned from exile. Candidacies may be submitted starting on Aug. 20, and will be accepted up until a week before the elections.
The battle for the FPM presidency is likely to pit MP Alain Aoun, Michel Aoun’s nephew, against Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, his son-in-law. Both are visiting districts and holding meetings in preparation for the contest.
The confrontation between the two officials is embodied in their different positions on the powers of the new party president.
The disagreement concerns the prerogatives of the party’s 12-member politburo, which will be formed in accordance with its new bylaws.
Bassil argues that members of the politburo should have only a consultative role in decision-making, while Alain Aoun supports granting the body the power to vote on decisions.
FPM MPs Simon Abi Ramia and Ziad Aswad are among those backing Alain Aoun’s position. Leading party figure Naim Aoun, also a nephew of Michel Aoun and another potential candidate for the presidency, shares Alain Aoun’s stance.
The election of a new FPM president is the first step in the implementation of the party’s bylaws, which were submitted to the Interior Ministry in December 2014.
Under this version of the bylaws, nine of the politburo’s members are elected, with the other three appointed by the president. Its members would vote on party decisions.
But earlier this year, Michel Aoun sent the Interior Ministry an amended version of the bylaws, under which half of the politburo’s members would be elected and the other half appointed. The body was also stripped of its voting power.
The amendments were rejected by Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk. But despite his opposition, Aoun issued a memo to FPM officials stating that the elections would be held based on the amended version. The move precipitated further division among party members.
“In all democracies in the world nowadays, parties have an elected body – call it a politburo or whatever you want – which puts decisions to a vote,” said a senior FPM source who supports MP Alain Aoun’s position.
“Even in parties here, like the Kataeb and the Lebanese Forces, decisions are made by a simple majority,” he told The Daily Star, asking to remain anonymous. “Democracy means voting.”
The source called on FPM members to turn the elections into a referendum on how they want the decision-making process to take place. “Let us reverse the amendments through elections and protect the initial version of the bylaws.”
The source claimed that 70 to 80 percent of FPM members supported this view.
But FPM officials who back Bassil argue that a president cannot run a party if he has to put routine or time-sensitive decisions to a vote.
“We want a president who can work, rather than have his daily work paralyzed by [always] having to get everyone’s consent,” Mansour Fadel said.
Fadel is in charge of organizing the elections, but said he “is personally supportive of Minister Bassil.”
“Take today’s garbage crisis. Is it possible that a mayor calls for a vote every time he wants to collect trash?” asked Fadel, who himself is deputy mayor of the Metn town of Jdeideh.
Fadel said the president was obliged to consult with members of the politburo before making a final decision. Decisions that are not time sensitive can be discussed and put to a vote before the Political Council, another body to be formed under the party’s bylaws, he added.
Fadel explained that a parliament-like National Council would set the broad policies and strategies of the FPM.
Asked which body would name ministers and decide whether the FPM would participate in the Cabinet, Fadel said these issues would be decided in due time.
But in response to Fadel’s remarks, a source supportive of Alain Aoun contended that this was the main source of disagreement.
“We don’t have a problem with daily decisions. Our problem is with important decisions like participation in the Cabinet and deciding on ministers,” the source said.
“Such decisions are put to a vote in the politburo of the Kataeb Party, for example. We are afraid that things will remain as they are now, when we even don’t know the names of the FPM ministers who will participate in a Cabinet ahead of time.”
Commenting on the elections, Michel Aoun said in an interview Thursday with LBCI that the new FPM president “will not have absolute power.”
Aoun said his aim was to hand over to the new executive “a functioning institution.”
Another election controversy erupted in the FPM’s ranks after a decision was made prohibiting candidates from talking to the media, unless they receive prior authorization to speak to outlets affiliated with the party.
Many in the party argue that the decision gives an unfair advantage to FPM MPs and ministers who are running in the elections, as they may still appear in the media in their roles as officials.
As for the fact that all the potential candidates are related to Michel Aoun, FPM media official Antoine Nasrallah contended that the presidential hopefuls had proven themselves capable.
“In the end, 16,000 voters will decide who the president will be, and MP Michel Aoun is taking a neutral stance on the candidates,” Nasrallah said. “We don’t look at Naim Aoun as the nephew of Michel Aoun. He [faces] struggles just like we do. As for MP Alain Aoun, he gained his legitimacy from the parliamentary elections.”