As of present date, The Lebanese parliament has failed for the 25th time in a row to elect a president to replace Michel SULEIMAN whose term ended on May 25 2014. The electoral process in Lebanon is not conducted through universal vote, but through parliamentary vote. There are 128 members of parliament and 84 must be present in order to meet the quorum requirements. The successful candidate, he or she must win the first round with a two-thirds majority and the second round with a simple majority. During a full year the Lebanese MPs were unable to fill in the presidential vacancy, due to the lack of quorum. Failure to elect a president does not arise that often in practice.[i] It is unusual, but for those accustomed to the peculiarity of the Lebanese system, to a political entity within which factional leaders work with a fragmented society following different interests, it is not unusual.
Since the enactment of the National Pact (1943), Lebanon’s leadership posts have been distributed among its largest religious sects: Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims and Christians. The presidential institution is reserved for the Christian sect. The president can only be chosen from the Christian candidates.
At the end of the long civil war 1975-1990, the head of state’s institution as most edifices in Lebanon was feeble. The Syrian regime was the one that reserved a sort of tutelage in Lebanon until 2005, when it withdrew its military occupancy. In 2015, with the Syrian crisis hovering over Lebanese skies, Lebanon proves unable to demonstrate autonomy with regards to the presidential decision. In fact, Lebanon’s querulous political parties have been unable to organize regular and independent presidential elections, ever since the independence from the French tutelage.
The Christians, who represent roughly 35 per cent of Lebanon’s population (exact data is not available), are divided among the two political blocs, following the respective Saudi-Iran axes. The Lebanese Forces leader, Samir GEAGEA continues to comport as a candidate who is ready to contest against General Michel AOUN, the head of the parliamentary Change and Reform bloc and the Free Patriotic Movement. Samir GEAGEA is antagonist with the Syrian regime and Hezbollah, while General AOUN defends Hezbollah’s fight against the Islamic State (IS) in Syria. For the first time since 2005, Michel AOUN and Samir GEAGEA met and eventually agreed upon “A declaration of intent” (اعلان النوايا), in May 2015. Both parties were having talks since Hezbollah and Mustaqbal (assassinated Prime Minister Hariri’s party) started their dialogue earlier this year, trying to preserve appearances of stability in a tensioned political climate. Given the volatile situation in the region, the dialogue between the Future Movement and Hezbollah was established earlier as a necessity, in order to ease sectarian tension. The rumors are that GEAGEA acts pre-emptive against a AOUN-HARIRI (the son) deal on the way.[ii]
Back in autumn 2014, GEAGEA declared for Reuters that “This goes beyond Lebanon”. The issue of the Lebanese presidency is on the table for discussion in the bargaining over the entire Middle East. “Therefore, unfortunately, I don’t see presidential elections in the foreseeable future,” he added.[iii]
His declaration is real to the extent that the duel between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran is fuelling the Syrian civil war, Syrian problems making Lebanon’s sectarian system of government facing aggravating troubles. A national government was announced in February 2014 with the regional powers’ blessing, sparing Lebanon from absence of any executive power. But nothing can be solved yet with respect to the presidential seat.
Experts are holding back their optimism, when questioned about the situation, reflecting a similar viewpoint to the political leader quoted previously: “As long as the region is in constant turmoil, as we are experiencing now … Lebanon will have a difficult time agreeing on a president,” according to Imad SALAMEY, professor of political science at the Lebanese American University in Beirut.[iv] Sahar ATRASH, analyst at the International Crisis Group argues along the same lines: “Today, the regional sponsors are waging direct wars and proxy wars, and the regional issues are much bigger than meeting to elect a president for Lebanon.”[v]
As the country enters its second year with severe institutional loophole, the people’s reaction is resilience, mixed with acceptance. Citizens look elsewhere in the region and think this is less dangerous than a fully-fledged war or non-state actors’ occupation. The elections have almost led nowhere to anyone’s surprise. As a statement more than a real possibility, for the first time, an independent woman presented herself as a candidate, “It was the logical continuation of my journey. I wish to fight against this feudal, obsolete and sectarian system that wouldn’t allow … a state of law. We live in a system where the citizens don’t get their essential rights.”[vi]
Such statements and lament over rights were not making headlines, as political scandals do. The latest scandal that dwelled on the contextual issues which are preventing election of a President: Saudi Arabia WikiLeaks. Many of the cables were linked to the clash between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia powerhouse Iran over influence in the region and the information hinting to Lebanon, referred to it as an ethnically and religiously diverse nation, with an active media.[vii] It exposed attempts of buying public capital or some favorable opinions.
With an array of problems, (presidential vacuum being less of a problem than others in the public’s eyes) people resort to faith, being devoid of concrete results in the secular plan. Recently religious figures organized bringing the statue of the Virgin Mary of Fatima to Lebanon, believing that the presence of the statue in Lebanon will precipitate the gridlock in Lebanon. They declared, “It might even lead to the election of a president. The organizers shifted their vision to another presidential objective and decided to place the statue in front of the Lebanese parliament on June 14 to bless it”, so that the MPs speed up the election.[viii]
In sum, the unknown reins the Lebanese political scene, and there is little hope the standstill can be brought to an end soon. In the meantime, everyone will keep the eyes on Syria and focus as it is the norm in Lebanon on the regional development and go with its flow, before deciding homely. And ultimately, await the Divine willpower.