The race for Lebanon's next president
The new parliament formed in May is preparing to elect the next president of the Lebanese Republic, who will be in charge for the next six years.
President Michel Aoun is expected to leave office by 31st October, and the election of a new president represents a crucial test bed for political parties to gauge alliances and outline the political direction of the country.
By convention, the president of Lebanon is a Christian Maronite, and the main responsibility is to serve as a symbol of the nation's unity. The presidency plays an active role in the country's political life as it can exercise several prerogatives before, during, and after the formation of the government.
In parliament, a president is elected by way of a secret ballot and a two-thirds majority in the first session, with an absolute majority in subsequent rounds. This election of the incoming Lebanese president comes amid the most critical moment of Lebanon's post-civil war history.
"No political bloc gained a substantial majority in the general elections held in May, and the parliamentary fragmentation hasn't helped in the search for a consensus candidate"
Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati has yet to form a government, and his lineup of ministries presented to President Aoun didn't convince the latter to give the green light for establishing the new cabinet, although Mikati has made assurances in recent days that the new government is set to be formed before President Aoun's term ends.
No political bloc gained a substantial majority in the general elections held in May, and the parliamentary fragmentation hasn’t helped in the search for a consensus candidate.
In the last few weeks, several names started to circulate that could be potential candidates at Baabda Palace, the official residence of the President of Lebanon, although no political party has yet endorsed an official candidate. The goal of major political parties is to find a common candidate able to receive consensus.
The two major Christian Maronite parties, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), founded by incumbent President Aoun and led by his son-in-law Gebran Bassil, and the Lebanese Forces (LF), led by Samir Geagea, are likely to be confrontational over the competition for the next president.
Several local newspapers named both Bassil and Geagea as potential candidates, although some experts argue that they have little chance of assuming the role. Nevertheless, it is necessary for any candidate who wants to run for the presidency to receive political endorsements from one or both Christian Maronite parties.
The endorsement of the presidential candidate from one or both major Christian Maronite parties is necessary to have political legitimacy and may be decisive in understanding the strength of foreign political influence in the country.
The FPM is allied with Iran-backed Hezbollah, while Geagea's LF takes an anti-Hezbollah position and is widely seen as Saudi Arabia's main Lebanese ally.
Sami Nader, political analyst and Director of Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs (LISA), explained to The New Arab that Lebanese presidents elected since the end of the civil war had allied with different regional powers.
"What will be the share of the Iranian and the anti-Iranian camp? I don't think Geagea or Bassil can be elected because the degree of opposition of other camps is thick. Geagea has an excessive anti-Iranian stance, while Bassil is under US sanctions," he said.
But beyond unofficial candidates Geagea and Bassil, other names are popping up.
Suleman Antoine Frangieh, current President of the Christian Maronite party the Marada Movement, and grandson of the former Lebanese President Suleiman Kalaman Frangieh, is seen as a suitable solution to find common ground between parties, although he is considered affiliated with the 8th of March alliance, which is allied with Hezbollah.
Imad Salamey, associate professor of Political Science and International Affairs at the Lebanese American University (LAU), told The New Arab that Frangieh has a high chance of being endorsed.
"Frangieh has a kind of international consensus [...] however, he should ensure sufficient support, particularly from the FPM, securing the party at least one-third of the future government. But in this scenario, he may face opposition from other parties. He could also be elected without the support of the FPM and by being supported by the LF. This would be a better choice because the international community will support such a choice, but this is hard to achieve," he said.
"Possible scenarios for the presidential election also include President Aoun remaining in office if a government is not formed before the end of his term"
However, Hezbollah is the party that still has the upper hand in the Presidential election.
Even though in May's elections it obtained fewer seats than in previous general elections, it still retains most of the parliamentary seats with its ally, the Amal Movement. The Iran-backed Shia party said it is open to a consensus president and seems to be playing for time in officially endorsing any candidate.
Michael Young, a senior editor at the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Centre, told The New Arab that both Hezbollah and Amal are waiting for a candidate that can bring consensus.
"They are avoiding endorsing someone because they want to find a candidate upon whom everyone can agree," he said.
In the meantime, the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) 's leader Walid Jumblatt met in August with Hezbollah officials to discuss several domestic issues, signalling a possible political rapprochement between the two parties that could have an impact on the presidential election.
Salamey explained that Jumblatt is playing matchmaker, trying to forge an alliance between the LF and Hezbollah and Amal's political bloc.
"Despite the rhetoric, both opponents have been working together in previous governments and are in the same parliament today, working together in parliamentary committees," he said.
Nader said that Jumblatt could be the kingmaker in consultations to nominate a presidential candidate as his party can vote for both anti- or pro-Iranian candidates, while other political camps are vertically divided.
Young highlighted that although Frangieh considers himself a compromising candidate, not every party shares the same view.
"Both the FPM and LF don't consider him a consensus candidate. However, their position could be tactical because what they want to do is grasp if they can influence him to impose their conditions on him. For instance, Bassil may ask him to name a new commander of the Army, a new governor of the central bank, and obtain control over certain ministries," he said.
In August, Ziad Hayek, former secretary general of the High Council for Privatisation and Partnerships (HCPP) and current resident of the World Association of PP Units and Professionals, and Tracy Chamoun, Lebanon's former Ambassador to Jordan and granddaughter of former President Camille Chamoun, officially presented their presidential candidacy.
According to Young, other personalities, such as Neemat Frem, a politician and businessman, Jihad Azour, the Director of the Middle East and Central Asia Department at the International Monetary Fund, and General Joseph Aoun, commander of the Lebanese Army, may emerge as consensus candidates, although they don't have a political base inside the parliament.
"I consider General Aoun one of the most realistic options, but several conditions need to be implemented. To be elected, it would be necessary to change part of the constitution because a civil servant can be a candidate only if they have retired two years before the candidacy. However, that part of the constitution is open to more interpretations as that wasn't applied when Michel Suleiman became President in 2008," he said.
However, possible scenarios for the presidential election also include President Aoun remaining in office if a government is not formed before his term ends.
"He hasn't been a national unifier and divided the nation. Everyone looks at Aoun's presidency as a big failure"
In 2016, Lebanon experienced an extended power vacuum when the parliament took more than two years and 46 rounds to elect Aoun as president, during which time the government assumed presidential duties.
Nader explained that Aoun could manoeuvre the presidential election, saying that if there is no official government he will not leave office because a caretaker government cannot assume presidential duties.
"However, I don't think this is a likely scenario because international stakeholders will oppose it," he said, adding that there is disagreement over the constitutional interpretation on this matter.
"A caretaker government with presidential powers may not be considered legitimate by Aounist ministers, who may decide not to participate in it," he said.
For now, a potential candidate still needs to secure the endorsement of the FPM or the LF, which are currently trying to block each other's initiatives.
"How can you convince the two largest Christian Maronite blocs to support a third candidate, and at what condition? FPM and LF would support a third candidate if this would be committed to strengthening the political positions of those parties," Young said.
Asked about Aoun's legacy during his presidency, Young told The New Arab it had been a disaster.
"What Aoun did in the last three years has been trying to secure the election of his son-in-law to power, but he failed. This shows he wasn't looking for a legacy but behaved like any member of the political class by putting in power someone from his family. He hasn't been a national unifier and divided the nation. Everyone looks at Aoun's presidency as a big failure," he said.
Dario Sabaghi is a freelance journalist interested in human rights.
Follow him on Twitter: @DarioSabaghi