Lebanon’s MPs set to make twelfth attempt to pick a president

Two candidates have emerged following the end of a parliamentary paralysis, but a stalemate is still expected

Jihad Azour, a senior official in the International Monetary Fund, and Suleiman Frangieh, the scion of an influential politician dynasty, are the two main candidates to become Lebanon's next president. photos: AFP / REUTERS
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Lebanon's parliaments will – for the 12th time in eight months – attempt to elect a head of state on Wednesday.

They may likely fail as political blocs seek to obstruct opposition candidates.

In recent days, both former minister Jihad Azour and Marada movement chief Suleiman Frangieh have formally announced their candidacy for Lebanon’s presidency, but neither is expected to receive the required two-thirds majority to win the election in the first round.

Still, the session symbolises a step forward in the electoral process.

The post has been vacant since October 2022, leaving only a resigned government at the helm. Parliament has been constitutionally stripped of legislative powers until a president is elected with a stalemate dominating the election process.

Behind the scenes, however, the horse-trading and shifting alliances typical of Lebanese politics have steadily continued.

Although Wednesday’s session will be the first since January, there is little expectation that the election will result in a new president.

Will a new president be elected?

Lebanon’s two largest and opposing Christian parties have converged over the name of Mr Azour – leaving Mr Frangieh supported mostly by the powerful Iran-backed Hezbollah group and its ally the Amal movement, but with little Christian legitimacy.

By unwritten convention, Lebanon’s top leadership posts are appointed according to sect: the speaker of the House must be a Shiite Muslim, the prime minister a Sunni, and the president a Maronite Christian.

In the current reading of the constitution, a two-thirds vote is required to win in the first round of the parliamentary election. In the second round, a simple majority of 65 votes is required.

Although Hezbollah and its allies have been uncompromising in their choice of Mr Frangieh, a close ally of the Syrian government, they have not gathered enough vote pledges to elect him to the post.

This is the first time the Shiite duo of Hezbollah and Amal will vote officially for Mr Frangieh, having previously cast blank ballots in all 11 sessions.

Lebanon's rival Christian parties unite to block Hezbollah candidate

Lebanon's rival Christian parties unite to block Hezbollah candidate

Hezbollah has alienated its major Christian ally, the Free Patriotic Movement, due to its insistence on the Marada movement leader over Mr Azour.

“We are pragmatic enough to know that right now, the only thing that will help us break this deadlock that was imposed on the Lebanese people [is] going to be a candidate who can represent a common space for several groups,” a Lebanese Forces source told The National of Mr Azour’s candidacy.

The Lebanese Forces, the largest party in Parliament, have formed a disparate coalition with the FPM, the Christian Kataeb party, the Druze Progressive Socialist Party and some independent MPs to vote for Mr Azour, whom they see as a consensus candidate.

The opposition camp has been eager to relay its willingness to nominate a candidate based on cross-party consensus in an attempt to block Mr Frangieh, a position Hezbollah and its allies have criticised.

But, like Mr Frangieh, Mr Azour is unlikely to receive the two-thirds majority of votes (85) necessary to elect a president in the first electoral round.

On the chance he could win the simple majority of 65 votes needed in a second round, the pro-Frangieh camp has indicated it may leave the session, forcing a loss of quorum.

Why would MPs force a loss of quorum?

In Lebanon, presidents are elected through political alliances. According to the present interpretation of the country’s constitution, MPs opposed to Mr Azour could simply force a loss of quorum to avoid a scenario in which Mr Azour could win in a second round of voting.

Constitutional expert and political science professor Wissam Lahham, from the University of St Joseph in Beirut, told The National that the constitution contains “no clear quorum – it’s up to interpretation”.

“According to the interpretation of [Parliament Speaker] Nabih Berri that was enforced in the 2014-2016 election until now, you need a permanent two-thirds quorum: 86 deputies always present in every round,” Mr Lahham said.

Gebran Bassil discusses presidential vacancy in Lebanon

Gebran Bassil discusses presidential vacancy in Lebanon

The current interpretation of quorum “suits political parties so they can block any decision” that is not to their advantage, he added.

In the 1980s, the interpretation was similar to the voting system, where a two-thirds quorum was needed in the first round but only a simple majority thereafter.

If we know the outcome, what’s the point of this election?

An electoral session has not been called since January, when the eleventh session to elect a president following the end of Michel Aoun’s term resulted in a predictable draw.

In 10 of the last 11 sessions, opposition candidate Michel Moawad – who has since stepped aside to make room for Mr Azour’s nomination – did not meet the required vote threshold, losing to blank votes.

The first electoral session in six months signals an end to the total paralysis that has marked the last election process. It also marks some progress in communication between blocs across party lines.

Alliances are shifting, coalitions are forming, and, at last, things are moving.

“We are trying to build this consensus with the two sides that are confronting,” Gebran Bassil, MP and head of the Free Patriotic Movement, told The National.

Although it has pledged itself to Mr Azour, the FPM has styled itself as a mediator of sorts between the Lebanese Forces-led opposition bloc and the Hezbollah-led bloc allied with the Syrian government.

“We made big progress by agreeing with one side – but we still need to agree with the other,” Mr Bassil added.

The FPM chief, widely believed to have his own designs on the presidency, has been a vocal critic of Hezbollah for its insistence on Mr Frangieh’s candidacy.

“They cannot make him succeed,” he said, referring to Mr Frangieh’s inability to garner the required majority. “So what’s the use of being entrenched that much over a name?”

Mediation, muckraking and negotiation tactics between political leaders have increased as each side seeks to pressure the other into consensus, but with Wednesday's election fast approaching, such attempts may prove futile.

“We cannot impose a president that is totally in line with us [on them], and Hezbollah cannot impose a president that is totally in line with them,” Kataeb leader Sami Gemayel told The National, acknowledging the impasse inherent to the election process.

“If we want to have a president, we have to see who is the best person, who can be a centrist and open real dialogue in Lebanon, and who can find solutions.”

Not elections, but 'a system of blackmail'

According to Mr Lahham, the constitutional expert, the election process has become “a system that blackmails everyone between two bad scenarios”.

“Each side is imposing their agenda and blackmailing the other side to follow it,” he said.

When political leaders representing parties in parliament must come to agreement behind the scenes before elections are called, then “it’s not a vote any more – that’s the whole conundrum”.

“There are no real elections. It’s just a formality.”

Updated: June 14, 2023, 7:15 AM