What next for Lebanon's opposition in presidential race, Michel Moawad or Plan B?

Ten sessions have failed to elect a successor to Michel Aoun as Lebanon's governance vacuum persists

Rene Moawad, the father of Michel Moawad, centre, was assassinated in 1989 after serving as president for 17 days. AP
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It has been two and a half months since Michel Aoun left the presidential palace in Baabda, and again Lebanon finds itself without a president.

True to form, each of the 10 sessions of the 128-seat parliament since Mr Aoun's departure have failed to elect someone to replace the former army chief in a legislature with no majority bloc.

Voting, unsurprisingly, has not been smooth.

While Michel Moawad is the only candidate to secure a significant chunk of support at each round, it is nowhere near the two-thirds majority required in the first round or the simple majority of 65 votes needed in round two.

Mr Moawad has been outstripped by blank ballots or jokes cast for the late Chilean president Salvador Allende or his South African counterpart Nelson Mandela, among others.

The second rounds of each session have been abandoned because of a lack of quorum as MPs walked out.

The presidential vacuum, although a common occurrence in Lebanon’s deeply divided confessional political scene, comes at a particularly serious time.

The country is embroiled in a devastating economic crisis, with many citizens plunged into poverty. Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s government is in caretaker status and thus largely stripped of its powers.

Mr Moawad, whose father Rene was assassinated in 1989 after serving as president for only 17 days, has consistently been able to count on a core bloc of about 40 MPs. That core is often referred to as the “opposition”, but contains traditional political parties as well as new MPs.

In Lebanon’s confessional power-sharing system, the presidency is reserved for a Maronite Christian.

As with Mr Aoun and others, that person usually ascends after a series of backdoor deals and compromises between factions.

While Mr Moawad has been able to count on the support of a large and vocally anti-Hezbollah bloc, including parliament's largest party, the Lebanese Forces, many see him as too divisive to cross the vote threshold. This is illustrated by the fact he is still regularly coming second to blank or invalid votes.

Those have largely come from the powerful group that had held a parliamentary majority until elections last year — Hezbollah, its Shiite ally Amal, and the Christian Free Patriotic Movement, which was founded by Mr Aoun. They have their own preferred candidates.

So far, Mr Moawad has also been backed by the Kataeb Party, the Druze Progressive Socialist Party and a handful of independent MPs, including some of those closely linked to the 2019 protest movement against Lebanon’s ruling classes that led to the collapse of the government.

“Before we nominated Mr Moawad as our candidate, we screened all the sovereign and reformist personalities within the Maronite community,” George Okais, a Lebanese Forces MP for Zahle, told The National.

“And [the LF] found out that Mr Moawad has exactly the same positioning vis-a-vis all the files, all the topics, all the crises in Lebanon. He has a clear vision about sovereignty and the reform needed in the country,” he added.

Despite the uphill battle in a deeply fractured parliament, Mr Moawad's supporters appear steadfast ― for now.

Sources within the bloc said the current plan is still to lobby other MPs with a like mind to join them and in doing so push Mr Moawad over the threshold.

A separate Lebanese Forces source described these groups as having “one single denominator, which is that they are all against the policies of Hezbollah and of the allies of Hezbollah”, referring to the Iran-backed political party and armed group which, in theory, has an alliance with Amal and the FPM.

They formed the majority bloc in the previous parliament and hold many positions in Mr Mikati’s cabinet.

The "opposition" grouping includes the 13 Change MPs who are closely linked to the 2019 protests that led to the collapse of the government at the time. While a few have begun voting for Mr Moawad, the majority still back names such as Issam Khalifeh, despite te academic never receiving more than 10 votes.

It includes a dozen or so Sunni MPs, formerly of the Future Movement of former prime minister Saad Hariri, who have not shown their hand thus far.

But his backers deny speculation that Mr Moawad's name could be dropped in favour of another.

“Right now, we still believe that MP Moawad is the main candidate, he’s a serious one, and is still on the same page with us and with the majority of the opposition's bloc,” Mr Okais said.

“We are maintaining our nomination of MP Moawad. No other opposition faction is presenting any other competitors to Mr Moawad. So why should we change the formula? There is no other formula to challenge it.”

But the stark reality is this: the three main parties submitting blank ballots — Hezbollah, Amal and the FPM — are opposed to Mr Moawad, even if at the moment they are divided among themselves.

Hezbollah is regarded as being supportive of Marada Movement leader Suleiman Frangieh, who is close to the Syrian regime. Mr Aoun’s son-in-law and FPM president, Gebran Bassil, has long harboured presidential ambitions for himself.

They have all been calling for compromise and dialogue. Mr Bassil told The National in October that his opponents are failing to propose realistic candidates who can bridge the divide in Lebanon's deeply divided political class.

Gebran Bassil discusses presidential vacancy in Lebanon

Interview with Gebran Bassil, leader of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) political party in Lebanon on 25 October 2022 at his home in Mtaileb, Lebanon. Matt Kynaston/ The National

While Mr Moawad's supporters try to convert MPs to their side in the hope of getting the 65 votes in the second round, even getting a second round of the vote without widespread consensus is almost impossible.

Hezbollah MPs and their allies have left most sessions after the first two-thirds majority threshold vote and therefore deny the quorum needed for the simple majority second round.

But a source close to parliament speaker and Amal Movement leader Nabih Berri said the quorum is two thirds of parliament, meaning that Mr Moawad's supporters would need their agreement to even hold a second vote.

Despite this, the pro-Moawad bloc insists that they will continue with him and say a symbolic majority would be enough to change the conversation even without a second-round vote.

The LF source said that if Mr Moawad hits the 65-vote mark it would represent a “major turning point” because he would command a majority of the parliament — a “de facto president” — even if he's unable to assume power.

There have also been calls from some for European sanctions on those obstructing the election of the president.

“Right now, we don't have any plan B, we don't have any other nomination to negotiate about or to think about or discuss with others about any other name. We don't have any other choice than working hard to reach the 65,” Mr Okais said.

So with no other clear name put forward, what are Mr Moawad's opponents hoping will change?

The only other serious name seen as sufficiently unifying to potentially win is army commander Joseph Aoun.

But he is barred from running while in the military and immediately after he stands down, barring a swift resolution ― although historically when it has become apparent that the army commander is the best choice for president, parliament has found a way to get that candidate into the job.

Karim Bitar, professor of international relations at the Saint Joseph University of Beirut, said Mr Frangieh and Gen Aoun were leading contenders for the presidency.

But he said it was likely the bloc supporting Mr Moawad would continue to vote for him, at least in the current weeks.

“What would make them change their position at this stage is the emergence of an international consensus. Historically, Lebanese presidential elections were never a domestic matter,” Prof Bitar said.

Mr Okais insisted his party is not holding out to extract key posts as concessions if another candidate comes forward with a path to a majority.

“We don’t need to manoeuvre. We are the biggest bloc in parliament. We can play this way with any other candidate, we can play this with Frangieh. So many politicians in Lebanon are approaching us with the same mentality. ‘Go make a deal with Frangieh instead of Bassil, and take all the available positions in the government.’ This is not the way we think. We are not doing a bargain,” he said.

Lebanon’s parliament will return on Thursday for its 11th presidential session.

It took 49 sessions, two and a half years, and a series of political deals for Mr Aoun to eventually come to power, suggesting the country could be in for a long ride before the next president is named.

Updated: January 19, 2023, 2:00 AM