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Lebanese-Style Déjà Vu: The Case of Presidential Elections

As Lebanon continues to descend into perpetual collapse, the risk of a presidential vacuum comes at a hefty cost of increased vulnerability and delayed recovery.

It has been almost two months since Michel Aoun, Lebanon’s 13th president, left office. His term was an accumulation of crises; from a financial collapse that pushed more than 80 percent of the population into multidimensional poverty to an explosion that almost wiped the country’s capital out, his last few years in office were filled with a great deal of political stalemate, economic turmoil, and loss. The country is now at a crossroads, as officials squabble amongst one another to elect a new president and form a new cabinet.

As Lebanon continues to descend into perpetual collapse, the risk of a presidential vacuum comes at a hefty cost of increased vulnerability and delayed recovery. According to the Lebanese constitution, the president is the only person who can form a government—the official entity responsible for the design and implementation of key public policies—following consultations conducted by parliament. In practice, the absence of a president, and by definition, a fully functioning government, implies the postponement of crucial political and economic measures as well as international agreements such as the pending IMF deal, even though the parliament could step in, according to caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati, if MPs reach an agreement on a way forward. 

Lebanon’s government has been in caretaker capacity since the parliamentary election in May 2022, which means its interventions are limited to “exceptional” circumstances. Such instances could span from responding to country-wide emergencies such as security incidents or ensuring that public administrations are able to execute their basic duties. Under such exceptional circumstances, however, a government is rid of its jurisdiction to design and implement structural policies across various realms with far-reaching social and economic impacts.

Not the first presidential vacuum

Under Article 49 of the constitution, for a president to be elected, the candidate should secure two-thirds of parliamentary members’ votes (86 votes) and a simple majority of votes in succeeding rounds (65 votes). Even though this might seem like a straightforward election process, in practice, matters have been more complicated. The previous presidential elections have been marred with delays fueled by political factions running the country themselves.

For example, in 2004, Emile Lahoud extended his presidential term by three years, avoiding a vote in parliament and keeping him in power until 2007. After that, the country was left without a president between November 2007 and May 2008 due to a lack of a majority. Michel Sleiman was elected president only after the implementation of the Doha agreement in Qatar, which gathered all the political factions to resolve rivalry between two camps that had eventually led to deadly street battles in the capital and other areas in early May 2008. Most recently, the country’s parliament spent a total of 29 months between 2014 and 2016 to elect Michel Aoun. His election was the immediate result of political consensus, between Christian leaders and when former Prime Minister Saad Hariri expressed support for Aoun, all while appeasing other factions such as Hezbollah and its allies.

There has been one common thread linking the last few presidential elections in Lebanon: MPs would stall voting so long as a “consensus” candidate is not agreed upon, a reality that is tied with how Lebanon’s political system has survived for decades. This may be seen through the number of blank votes casted during the first rounds of the elections during parliamentary sessions: on average, for these presidential elections, the number of blank ballots ranged between 37 and 52. In addition, quorums were lost before second rounds could take place, automatically ending the voting process. Evidently, political consensus deals have long offered sectarian leadership the tools to prey on key state functions from ministries to judicial posts, thus extracting public rents in the pursuit of power and wealth accumulation. 2022 is no different.

Progress on electing a president has been sluggish, as MPs have failed on 10 different occasions to elect a candidate, meaning that the crisis-stricken country will end its current fiscal year with a full-fledged presidential vacuum. The country should brace itself for the real possibility of persistent political vacuum in a fashion that is historically unprecedented. Unlike past elections, the international community seems less inclined to play a key role in helping secure a consensus deal for electing a candidate. Indeed, there is less appetite to invest in local political reform amid present global conditions, such as the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the global energy crisis. This is also exacerbated by the Lebanese political class’s unwillingness to enact necessary governance and economic reforms.

The real value of the Lebanese presidency in crisis context

According to the 1989 Taif agreement which put an end to the civil war, the Lebanese president is the head of state, the supreme commander of armed forces, and the person tasked with “preserving Lebanon’s independence, unity, and territorial integrity.” That said, however, the agreement had restricted presidential powers by transferring a great deal of executive prerogatives to the council of ministers headed by the prime minister with the aim of prioritizing a sectarian power balance.

The Lebanese constitution states that the president is tasked with signing on international agreements that pertain to state finances or trade treaties, after having been approved by parliament and the country’s cabinet. Of note, the parliament is currently working on a set of laws, such as the capital control and the banking secrecy laws, both of which are prerequisites for the potential $3 billion IMF funding, currently being advertised as a way out of the country’s multi-pronged crisis. In the absence of both a president and a cabinet, the stakes for the economy and society are high.

On average, it took around a week to form a government between 1989 and 2005. But this figure leapt to 100 days between 2005 and 2016. This may be explained by the end of the Syrian occupation in Lebanon in 2005, as the Syrian regime had a strong hold on the country’s political landscape, eventually inflating a system of cronyism based on wealth-hoarding at the expense of social welfare.

Since the onset of the country’s financial crisis in 2019, Lebanon has had its fair share of interim governments. In fact, the country has had caretaker governments for 43 percent of President Aoun’s term, between 2016 and 2022. While Lebanon enjoyed a fully functional government headed by Najib Mikati in 2021, it only lasted until the May 2022 parliamentary election. This government, which convened on December 5 for the first time in six months to reportedly facilitate public service delivery, has been largely limited by its caretaker capacities.

Legally, and in practice, a caretaker government may assume presidential powers in the event that the constitutional deadline for electing a president passes. As mentioned earlier, there are key limitations associated with being a caretaker government. For one, any policies set out by a minister that has resigned would undergo a vetting process by administrative courts, which function in tandem with the State Council.

The caretaker government, in the absence of a president, cannot issue structural policies that will likely bind an upcoming cabinet to certain treaties or regulatory amendments. Following this logic, a government in caretaker capacity—even one with presidential powers—would unlikely proceed with IMF negotiations or pass economic and financial recovery plans. Further delays in enacting economic, political, and financial reforms will only push society into further poverty, inequality, and instability. In this vein, electing a president has become an utmost necessity. So, who are the possible contenders?

Contenders for the presidency

The National Pact of 1943 states that the president is to be a Maronite Christian. There are several candidates, with differing political ideologies, who have expressed interest in the presidency or were recommended for election.

One potential candidate is Sleiman Frangieh, who is a former MP and minister of health, grandson of former President Suleiman Kabalan Frangieh, son of late MP Tony Frangieh killed during the civil war, and father of MP Tony Frangieh. His pro-Syrian regime stance has led to the support of Hezbollah, the Amal Movement, and caretaker prime minister Najib Mikati, all deeming him a strong candidate. As matters stand now, his election would not be possible as the number of votes within his reach with his alliances with March 8 and pro-Syrian groups do not exceed the minimum threshold of 65 votes. 

Simultaneously, MP Gebran Bassil, former minister of foreign affairs and energy, leader of Lebanon’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) party and former President Aoun’s son-in-law, is another potential contender. However, his candidacy has not been supported by Hezbollah, even though they had been allies of the FPM since 2006. Hezbollah’s cold shoulder is partly linked to Bassil’s conflictual relations with the Amal Movement, Hezbollah’s major ally, and the US sanctions imposed on him since November 2020 for “contributing to corruption in Lebanon.”

Groups opposed to the Hezbollah-Amal Movement camp have simultaneously proposed their own candidates. One example is MP Michel Moawad, the son of late President Rene Moawad murdered in 1989, who comes from the same town as the Frangieh clan. Moawad managed to secure endorsement from the Lebanese Forces party, but he has failed to secure the necessary approval from independent MPs. Many do not seem to be convinced by his candidacy, as he is presently perceived as a traditional political leader. During the most recent parliamentary session on December 15, Moawad managed to secure around 60 percent of the necessary votes for election.

Army commander Joseph Aoun’s name has also come up in discussions around elections. Lebanon’s three last presidents have been army commanders: Emile Lahoud in 1997, Michel Sleiman in 2008, and Michel Aoun in 2016. Public support of Joseph Aoun links with the fact that the Lebanese army is associated with ideals such as national unity and patriotism. This showed following the Beirut port explosion, when the army became the key state institution that organized post-blast response, working closely with affected communities around Beirut. Joseph Aoun’s strong ties with domestic players as well as his diplomatic relations with key international powers such as the United States have also placed him in an even more favorable position for election. Professor of International Relations at University of Saint Joseph Karim Bitar commented to TIMEP: “regional and international analysts and diplomats find that a quasi-failed state like Lebanon will need solid leadership that could be provided by a commander in chief such as [Joseph] Aoun.” However, there is no clear sign yet that he will be elected or if he will be running at all.

There have been other potential names being circulated. Samir Geagea, the leader of the Lebanese Forces, has failed to secure alliances with key political factions represented in parliament. A few other candidacies have been put on the table, such as Tracy Chamoun, former ambassador to Lebanon in Jordan with anti-establishment political opinions, and Issam Khalifeh, an academic and trade unionist. Both candidates, however, have not received much support for the election.

In the absence of a fully functional government and president, the general population will continue to bear the brunt of the crisis. As a new year approaches in just a few days, with the next parliamentary session for presidential election set to take place in January 2023, officials should prioritize electing a president and forming a government to enact necessary political, economic, and financial reforms to secure international funding and kickstart people-centered economic and financial recovery.

Hussein Cheaito is a Nonresident Fellow at TIMEP focusing on governance and economic development in Lebanon. 


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