The Defunct Process of Electing a President Reaffirms the Status Quo
On October 31, 2016, parliament finally voted Michel Aoun to be Lebanon’s thirteenth president. It took twenty-nine months and forty-six electoral sessions to get eighty-three out of 127 parliamentarians to agree to send him back to the presidential palace. While many are speculating about the regional factors that led to the timing of the election including how Iran’s preference for Aoun over Suleiman Frangieh apparently trumped the wishes of not only Saudi Arabia but also Syria, there are some internal dynamics that ought to be observed.
While Aoun’s main ambition was to return to Baabda after twenty-six years, Saad Hariri was also keener than ever to take up his previous position in the Serail, hoping to reclaim some of what he lost politically and financially over the past half-decade. Out of power since January 2011, Hariri can no longer afford to hover between Riyadh and Paris while his political base is slipping away. The loss of this year’s municipal election in Tripoli to Ashraf Rifi, his former ally now turned rival, was a major blow to the Future Movement. Rifi managed to exploit the anger of restive Sunni Islamist groups to sweep the contest, defeating two billionaires – Hariri and Najib Mikati – who fielded a joint list but remained suspicious of each other. Even Beirut was less sympathetic to Hariri. Although Hariri’s endorsed list won the municipal election against a nascent civil society movement – better known as Beirut Madinati – the result made him look weak and vulnerable, as his list only managed to win by 7,000 votes and was down 20,000 votes in total compared to his showing in the 2010 election.
Against this backdrop, Hariri could ill afford to go into parliamentary elections scheduled for May 2017 with a weak hand and dwindling resources. Striking a deal with Aoun became a necessity to salvage his own political career. But before conceding to Aoun, Hariri tried other routes to get back to the Serail. Knowing well that his initial candidate for presidency, March 14 ally Samir Geagea, was unelectable, Hariri made his first unexpected move and endorsed Suleiman Frangieh from the opposing March 8 camp. In trying to divide his opponents by forcing them to choose between Aoun and Frangieh, Hariri’s gamble backfired and ended up splitting his own camp. Geagea, who saw Hariri’s move as threat to his political survival, found it more palatable to make peace with his arch foe Aoun than see local northern rival Frangieh assume the presidency. With Frangieh’s nomination not picking up the requisite amount of support across the Lebanese political spectrum, Hariri was ultimately forced to make peace with Aoun. While Hezbollah, Geagea, and Hariri all came to support Aoun for the presidency at different times, it is probable that none of them actually believed that the other two would come around and vote for Aoun.
The selection of Aoun was preceded by wheeling and dealing meant to secure buy-in from various key parties to ensure the agreement went through. Some, like Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, initially gave the backroom machinations a positive spin, referring to it as the “basket” of agreed upon policy decisions that would include: the designation of Hariri as the prime minister, the distribution of ministerial seats across parties, and an agreement on the 1960 electoral law. This effectively reduces any uncertainty that the new presidency carries with it for the political parties. While this process may ensure political stability among the elite, it ends up privileging the status quo and further entrenching the interests of the very few. Any party that falls out of the bargain will cry foul and incite sectarian concern to draw itself back to the negotiating table, exemplified by Berri’s actions over the previous few weeks. This behind-the-scenes politicking is detached from citizen’s interests or concerns. In fact, the Lebanese, in the view of the politicians, have been relegated to sectarian pawns whose role, once intoxicated with sectarian discourse by the elite, is to parrot the interests of the ruling elite.
The filling of the presidential vacuum will not solve the country’s ills, as it only provides a fake sense of normalcy where none exists in the political system. In fact, we suffer from a vacuum across most, if not all, institutions, which have been undermined in serving citizens’ needs. Lebanon’s flaws are deeper than not having a president. They are rooted in an electoral law that allows the elite to select their constituency rather than voters electing their representatives. Furthermore, the ruling classes’ inability to uphold the constitution and hold parliamentary elections on time cast a shadow over their integrity and commitment to democracy. In addition, the political charade pulled over twenty-nine months of vacuum and on the day of the election shows a high level of irresponsibility that brings into question their entire role as an electoral body. The failure of any elected official during the last few years to hold the government accountable - or even engage in some type of oversight session – for failing to deal with the many challenges facing the country highlights their unwillingness to properly govern. In addition, the executive authority which is entrusted to the Council of Ministers is often an assemblage of parties who lack a clear governing agenda and pay scant attention to the people they are serving. These failings call for reform first and foremost in the process of electing a president. Lebanon must hold a direct presidential election by the people so the deadline is respected and the wheeling and dealing at the expense of citizens is avoided.
What Lebanon needs is not a strong Christian president to lead it forward. It needs an institutional mechanism so its citizens can have proper say in the selection of their president. It needs an executive body that is coherent rather than an assemblage of bickering and polarized politicians. It needs a parliament that can legislate and hold the executive accountable. It needs an electoral law that provides a fair chance for a new governing elite – one which represents a larger segment of society and feels accountable to its constituency – to emerge. It needs a judiciary that is independent and prioritizes protecting the public interest. It needs a constitutional council that is bold in calling political parties to account for their breaches of the law.
The process of electing a president is replete with behind the scenes backroom deals that aim to keep, if not entrench, the interests of the elite at the expense of citizens who are left agonizing over a range of socio-economic challenges that affect their lives.