Behind-the-scenes talks between Lebanon’s two largest rival Christian parties over the choice of a presidential candidate have either “had some positive outcomes” or “may not progress” – depending on who you ask.
The Lebanese Forces-led opposition camp – made up of the LF, the Kataeb party and a coalition of independent MPs – is a parliamentary alliance characterised by its opposition to Hezbollah.
Its rival, the Free Patriotic Movement, is allied with the Iran-backed group.
Ongoing talks within the Lebanese Forces-led bloc to reach a consensus on a presidential candidate have spread to encompass talks with the Free Patriotic Movement, several sources close to the negotiations told The National, as the LF attempts to woo its Christian rival to its camp.
“We have had some positive outcomes but we still aren’t completely certain about who the candidates will be and how the discussions will end,” said Lebanese Forces MP Razi Al Hage.
MP Alain Aoun, Parliament Secretary and a senior member of the Free Patriotic Movement, acknowledged the talks were “useful” but had a more cynical outlook.
“I don't expect that we’re going to come to any possible breakthrough unless agreement is reached on both sides,” he said.
Mr Aoun accused the Lebanese Forces of sticking to their shortlist of candidates despite a lack of agreement from his party.
Same diagnosis, different solutions
Back-room negotiations are often central to electing a head-of-state in Lebanon, with political parties and blocs bargaining with allies and rivals alike over the candidates.
In the small country’s confessional landscape, the president is always a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the parliament speaker a Shiite Muslim. In theory, the confessional make-up ensures equal representation between Christian and Muslim citizens.
But in practice, the struggling nation's sectarian system has created a laborious web of political alliances.
Two Lebanese Forces sources informed about the negotiations said the opposition bloc would be open to an alliance with the Free Patriotic Movement, should the dialogue between the two camps lead to an agreement.
Although no consensus on a potential candidate has yet been reached, one Lebanese Forces source said the “coming days will prove” whether the rival parties can have a working relationship.
“We have the same diagnosis. But we have yet to agree on the same solution,” the source said.
He added that Free Patriotic Movement and the opposition bloc jointly share a rejection of Hezbollah’s preferred candidate, Marada party leader Suleiman Frangieh.
“The need is to fill the [presidential] vacancy and prevent the obstruction candidate [Mr Frangieh] from accessing the presidency.”
The Free Patriotic Movement until recently had a marriage of convenience with Hezbollah, but their relations have cooled over the Iran-backed party’s insistence on backing Mr Frangieh for the presidency.
The party provided the pro-Hezbollah bloc with a considerable Christian cover, allowing Hezbollah to leverage a presidential candidate of its choice with the Free Patriotic Movement’s backing.
The country’s previous president, Michel Aoun, was elected in 2016 following years of parliamentary stalemate. The formation of the alliance between Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement was responsible for bringing him to power.
The presidency has remained vacant for six and a half months, following Mr Aoun’s departure from office last October, and the electoral process has ground to a standstill.
“The FPM needs to get out of their alliance with Hezbollah,” Mr Al Hage told The National. “Or they need to take a clear position towards the presidential elections."
But Mr Aoun, the Parliament Secretary, said he considered his party a mediator that could leverage its relationship with Hezbollah to reach a consensus, but said little progress had been made in that regard.
“We expect to try to agree on a name, then go and negotiate with [the pro-Hezbollah bloc], while the Lebanese Forces expect to go for a name and keep going for him even if there is no agreement.”
Officially, independent MP Michel Moawad, close to the Lebanese Forces, is the party's candidate of choice and the one most of the opposition bloc has voted for.
But Mr Moawad has been unable to garner enough votes for the presidency, with blank ballots consistently outnumbering votes cast for him.
During each electoral session, a quorum has been lost due to Hezbollah MPs and their allies walking out before a second round of voting can take place.
In Lebanon’s constitution, electing a president a two-thirds majority is required to win in the first round. Failing that, in the second round, only an absolute majority is needed – or 65 votes in the 128-seat chamber.
But Lebanon’s political system is fragmented and its parliament deeply polarised, so obtaining a majority has been no easy task.
After 11 electoral sessions convened by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, Lebanon is no closer to a president, and the electoral process, for the most part, remains paralysed.
The progression of talks internally within the opposition bloc indicate the Lebanese Forces’ willingness to back away from Mr Moawad if a suitable candidate were to emerge from key alliances.
“We have had some talks about some candidates and a certain road map for adding a sovereignist and reformist candidate,” Mr Al Hage told The National on the talks between the Free Patriotic Movement and the opposition bloc.
But Mr Aoun dismissed those names.
“We’re not there yet.”