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Lebanon's parliament begins a (very) long political battle to elect next president

by Marc DAOU
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world news As Lebanon sinks further into acute economic crisis, President Michel Aoun’s term of office approaches its end on October 31. Parliament members began the process of electing his successor on September 29. The political tug-of-war over this post, reserved for a member of the Maronite Christian community, is expected to be lengthy. During the last presidential election, Lebanon went without a president for 29 months. 

The series of bank robberies by Lebanese citizens hoping to recover their own savings, which have been frozen for the past three years, attracted much foreign media attention in recent weeks and overshadowed the presidential election currently underway in Lebanon. 

As the six-year non-renewable term of the current president, former general Michel Aoun ends on October 31, the process to replace him began on September 29 in parliament, whose 128 MPs have the constitutional power to elect the head of state. Voting is by secret ballot and the president of the republic is elected by a two-thirds majority in the first round and by an absolute majority in subsequent rounds. 

Unsurprisingly, the first parliamentary session was not a success. No consensus has yet been found on who should be Aoun’s successor due to the divisions within the political class. Parliament is so polarised that it can’t even agree on the need to form a new government to replace the one currently led by incumbent Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who has been in charge of current affairs since May, when the new parliament’s mandate began.  

A ‘purely formal’ exercise The majority of the 122 votes cast on September 29 were blank, while Michel Moawad – a Maronite MP and the son of former President René Moawad, who was assassinated in 1989 – received 36 votes. 

One vote was cast in memory of Mahsa Amini, the young Iranian woman who died on September 16 in Tehran after being arrested by the morality police for wearing her headscarf “improperly” and whose death triggered the ongoing protest movement in Iran. 

At the end of this first election session, which the French daily newspaper L’Orient-le-Jour described “as a purely formal exercise”, Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri adjourned the session, as some parliamentarians had withdrawn from the chamber, breaking quorum. The new session scheduled for October 13 will most likely lead to the same result. 

The country’s constitution states that if an election is not held within the last 10 days of the incumbent’s mandate, parliament can no longer legislate because it must only hold presidential sessions. 

The Lebanese, who are already facing the worst economic crisis in the country’s history, already know that the presidential process can last a long time. Due to the lack of consensus between the different political camps and various political blockages, they endured 29 months of institutional vacuum after former President Michel Sleiman’s term in office ended on May 25, 2014. 

 Aoun, a political ally of pro-Iranian Hezbollah, was not elected until the 46th electoral session and endless negotiations for the two-thirds quorum needed to hold the vote – 86 out of 128 parliament members – had taken place. He officially became president on October 31, 2016.  

A position reserved for Maronite Christians The Taif Agreement, which was signed in 1989 in Saudi Arabia with the aim of putting an end to 15 years of war in Lebanon, transferred executive power to the Council of Ministers, thereby limiting the president’s prerogatives.  

For instance, although the head of state is designated as the commander of the armed forces in defence matters, they remain “subject to the Council of Ministers”, according to the principle of a political model centred around the need to share power between different communities. 

Officially, the Lebanese state has 18 communities: Christians (Maronites, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic Melkites, Syrian Orthodox, Syrian Catholic, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Coptic Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Armenian Catholic, Latin and Protestant), Muslims (Shiites, Druze, Sunnis, Ismailis and Alawites) and a Jewish community. 

The National Pact of 1943, the year of the country’s independence from France, laid out how these religious communities should be formally represented in the Lebanese state. Agreed at the time between the country’s Maronite and Sunni leaders, this unwritten pact stipulates that the president of the republic and the head of the army always be Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni and the speaker of parliament a member of the Shiite community. 

Ever since the Taif Agreement was reached, the 128 parliament seats have been divided equally between Muslims and Christians, and within these two denominational blocs the number of parliament members is determined based on their community’s demographic weight (the Shiites have 27, the Maronites 34). This was decided during the last census, which was carried out… in 1932. 

Set up to promote consensus, this system has been hijacked over the years by the heavyweights of the political class, who have increased the number of political blockages and erected political bargaining as a mode of governance. Waves of popular protest against a government viewed as corrupt roiled the country in 2019. 

During Aoun’s election in 2016, the former general’s camp and his political allies in Hezbollah managed to impose their candidate after having long blocked the presidential election. Six years later, this same camp, which lost its majority in the last legislative elections, is trying to get the outgoing president’s son-in-law, former Minister of Foreign Affairs Gebran Bassil, elected. However, he is seen as a divisive figure in Lebanon.  

A new wave of conflict is therefore likely to emerge and drag on until a compromise candidate can be agreed upon to resolve the current situation. Given that more than 80% of the population lives below the poverty line according to the NGO Care, the Lebanese need their institutions to work at full capacity now more than ever.  

This article was adapted from the original in French.

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