What’s next for Lebanon with no government and soon no president?

In a divided Parliament, the country's confessional power-sharing system may hinder a new head of state's election

Lebanon's President Michel Aoun, centre, meeting Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati, right, at the presidential palace in Baabda, east of the capital Beirut, in June. AFP
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Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati have made assurances in recent days that a government formation is on the horizon before Mr Aoun’s term ends on October 31.

At a recent meeting with EU ambassadors, Mr Aoun again affirmed his commitment to forming a government that would assume presidential powers in the event of a vacancy.

As reported by Lebanese state media, Mr Aoun blamed the delays in the government formation on the challenges presented by Lebanon’s sectarian power-sharing system.

By political convention, the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the Parliament Speaker a Shiite Muslim. Meanwhile, the Parliament must contain a 50/50 ratio of Muslims and Christians.

Is a new government near?

The present government went into caretaker status four months ago following the May 15 parliamentary elections. Mr Mikati was once again designated as prime minister to form a new government, but has until now failed to reach an agreement with the president over its make-up.

Despite on-and-off speculation over the past four months that a new government is on the verge of formation, recent meetings before the two have appeared tense. The prospect of a government before the end of President Aoun’s tenure seems unlikely, despite assurances from both leaders.

The EU’s ambassador to Lebanon, Ralf Tarraf, responded to the president's comments about the difficulties of sharing the country's leadership.

“We know that the Lebanese decision-makers are working in a very complex context and that there is a regional and international geopolitical environment full of challenges,” he said.

“But all these matters cannot be an excuse for postponing reforms.”

Constitutionally, Lebanon’s government assumes the powers of the president in the event that a new head of state is not elected before the end of the sitting president’s term.

If a parliamentary consensus on the next president has not been reached by the end of October, caretaker Prime Minister Mr Mikati’s government would take the reins.

But historically, electing a president has often been a drawn-out affair — as attests the presidency of Mr Aoun, who became head of state following a prolonged presidential vacuum of two-and-a-half years.

Speculation of a forthcoming presidential vacuum has been rampant in Lebanon as the end of Mr Aoun’s term nears. This has generated major doubts about the future of Lebanon’s security and economic recovery.

What will it take to elect the next president?

In theory, Lebanon's confessional make-up ensures equal representation between its Christian and Muslim citizens.

But in practice, the struggling nation's sectarian system has become a web of political alliances influenced by international proxies.

Electing the next president will require Parliament to secure a two-thirds majority vote in the first session. Failing that, subsequent sessions require an absolute majority. But the country's present parliamentary make-up is highly divided and no political party retains an absolute majority.

“This really requires at least four out of the five major political groups to agree among each other,” said policy adviser and associate professor of political science, Imad Salamey.

He said the country had no formal method to present presidential nominees. Rather, names are agreed upon through consultations between major political parties and blocs.

Such agreement is often easier said than done. Mr Salamey said alliances would not be possible without political compromise.

“If the major political blocs agree, we can expect an election,” he said.

Otherwise, the struggling nation can expect the worst-case scenario: a presidential vacuum.

What if the president leaves before a head of state is elected?

If a new president has not been elected by the time Mr Aoun leaves, constitutionally “the powers of the President of the Republic would be given to the government in the interim,” said Wissam Lahham, a constitutional expert and political science professor at the University of St Joseph in Beirut.

But Lebanon’s current government is operating in a caretaker capacity. With no agreement on a new government in sight, questions of whether a custodial government can take over the presidency have dominated political coverage.

Mr Aoun has publicly rejected the prospect.

Presidential hopeful Gebran Bassil has also expressed opposition. He said his party, the Free Patriotic Movement — founded by father-in-law Mr Aoun ― would not recognise the caretaker Cabinet of Mr Mikati.

This is the first time a caretaker government could potentially be called upon to fill a presidential vacuum since the end of Lebanon's civil war 32 years ago.

However, Mr Lahham said a scenario similar to the one opposed by Mr Aoun was carried out by him more than 30 years ago.

In 1988, with minutes to spare and no successor, outgoing president Amin Gemayel controversially appointed Mr Aoun, then a general in the Lebanese Army, as prime minister.

“Parliament was under Syrian control at the time, so Aoun refused to recognise it. His government never received a vote of confidence from Parliament,” said Mr Lahham.

“In a way, it was a caretaker government.”

“So now he’s saying a caretaker government can't take presidential powers, but he himself did it in 1988,” Mr Lahham said. He said the episode was a peculiarity of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war from 1975 to 1990 — and a departure from Lebanon’s norm.

The president and prime minister have both traded blame over their lack of agreement on a government line-up.

“Aoun and Bassil want to pressure Mikati by saying a caretaker government can't exercise the prerogative of the president,” Mr Lahham said. "It’s a devious way to hide political motives under constitutional argumentation.

But constitutionally speaking, “nothing in Lebanese laws forbids this caretaker government from taking on presidential powers,” he said.

What is at stake?

Lebanon is in a steep economic quagmire ― the worst in the modern world, the World Bank has said — and needs unified leadership to come out of it.

If a government is not formed and Mr Mikati’s caretaker Cabinet moves into presidential role, the issue of resolving Lebanon’s prolonged economic crisis would face new challenges.

The International Monetary Fund is ready to help the struggling Mediterranean nation out of its financial predicament. However, it has introduced a set of comprehensive structural reforms that would need to be passed before the bailout package can be unlocked.

Signs of Lebanon’s economic implosion began to show in 2019.

Three years of chronic economic crisis have led to 80 per cent of the population slipping into poverty and the local currency devalue by more than 95 per cent. Meanwhile, inflation has soared.

The public sector is on the verge of collapse.

At the onset of the financial crash, commercial banks imposed informal capital controls that locked depositors out of the full dollar value of their savings.

Despite Lebanon’s desperate need for structural change, no single reform has been passed to date.

If Lebanon is to be thrust into the worst-case scenario of a presidential vacuum, the government ― caretaker or otherwise ― would have to pass the badly needed reforms. To do so would require legislation.

If faced with a presidential vacuum, “the question becomes: can Parliament legislate without a president?” Mr Lahham told The National.

Constitutional legal opinion is split on the subject.

“The constitution never imagined reaching this kind of situation,” he said.

Updated: October 31, 2022, 3:20 PM