Lebanon set to enter 2024 without a president as deadlock persists

The country's position is precarious amid a continuing economic crisis, as Hezbollah and Israel clash on its southern border

Gebran Bassil's party announces their presidential candidate

Gebran Bassil's party announces their presidential candidate
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Almost 14 months after Lebanon's former head of state Michel Aoun left the presidential palace in Baabda, the country is set to enter 2024 without a president and with no resolution in imminent sight after 12 intermittent parliamentary sessions.

Presidential vacuums are common in Lebanon, with the new head of state normally elected after a series of behind-closed-doors deals are hammered out. But now the situation is particularly acute in a country entrenched in a more than four-year economic crisis, with only a caretaker government, and at risk of being dragged further into the Israel-Gaza war.

“It could have devastating consequences because we are in the midst of a regional war and in the midst of state collapse,” said Karim Bitar, a professor of International Relations at Saint Joseph University in Beirut.

“Lebanon does simply not have the luxury of allowing this presidential vacuum to continue.”

Choosing a president in Lebanon is a complex process and hindered by the deep divisions between the country's political parties.

Under Lebanon's unique confessional system, the president must be a Maronite Christian, and must be nominated by Lebanon's 128-seat parliament, where no bloc holds a majority.

This time around, no candidate has come close to securing the two-thirds majority required to be approved in the first round of voting.

Further sessions in the same round, where a candidate only needs an absolute majority, have not taken place because the quorum has been lost as MPs leave the room in a bid to prevent their rival candidate obtaining the necessary support.

“The way I would describe it is much more than the usual Lebanese deadlock. We have entered a situation where the abnormal has become the new normal, where everyone seems to be 'waiting for Godot',” said Prof Bitar, referring to the Samuel Beckett play where two characters wait for someone to turn up but they never do.

Prof Bitar added that there is an “endless vicious circle” of Lebanese politicians citing a range of issues as an excuse to procrastinate.

“Today, some of them say they are waiting to see the results of the war on Gaza. Later we might hear that they are waiting to see the result of the US presidential election and maybe later, wait for the new president to take office. So it's an endless vicious circle,” he said.

Votes were divided between two main candidates for the most recent session in June – Jihad Azour, a senior official in the International Monetary Fund, and Suleiman Frangieh, the scion of an influential politician dynasty who is close friends with Syria's Bashar Al Assad.

Supporters of both candidates show little sign of compromise. That is especially the case with the two major Shiite parties Hezbollah and the Amal Movement – led by parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri, who seem intent on continuing their support for Mr Frangieh.

Those who voted for Mr Azour are rankled by Hezbollah and Amal's stubborn backing of Mr Frangieh. They say there is no point looking for a “third way” candidate when the Shiite parties will not soften their approach.

“We have shown a great will to elect a president and we have done everything possible to go for an election and end this vacuum, but unfortunately this is not echoed by the other group who is still today trying to delay it for a certain reason or another,” said a representative of parliament's largest party, the Lebanese Forces, which supported Mr Azour in June.

The Lebanese Forces had previously backed MP Michel Moawad for president in the preceding 11 sessions.

The representative continued: “Maybe they consider that the regional balance will shift in their favour, maybe they believe they can influence more regional powers to fight their fight and lead their candidate to the presidency.

“They have lots of calculations that are non-Lebanese, all our investment is to boost the Lebanese institutions and finalise this election,” the source said, referring to the close ties Hezbollah has with Iran. Opponents of the Iran-backed group frequently refer to that close relationship when criticising the group.

It took about two and a half years before Mr Aoun was finally elected in 2016, in part due to a deal with his long-time Christian foe Samir Geagea, the leader of the Lebanese Forces.

“We have seen this ugly scenario before: it took 29 months to elect a president between 2014 and 2016,” said Prof Bitar.

“As long as there is no decision on the part of the ruling oligarchs, the five or six sectarian leaders that are running this country, that it is time to go back to the state, to abide by the constitution, to the state of law, to reclaim the state and institutions, it could take forever.

“This is what I'm mostly worried about, is that people are becoming accustomed to this completely abnormal situation,” he added.

The presidency had fallen down the agenda due to the outbreak of the Israel-Gaza war across Lebanon's southern border, which has spilt into daily cross-border fire between Israeli forces and Hezbollah.

However, the presidency is one of the fundamental issues that faces the dysfunctional Lebanese state.

On a visit to Beirut last month, French presidential envoy Jean Yves Le Drian raised the issue of the presidency again.

France is part of the so-called quintet for Lebanon, which also includes Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar and the US.

The group, comprising five influential countries with an active interest in Lebanon, has often met over the vacancy and repeatedly urged MPs to end the impasse.

It is understood that Mr Le Drian for the first time suggested a “third way” in his talks with politicians, while voicing an acceptance that Mr Frangieh and Mr Azour stood no change of succeeding Mr Aoun.

A rare recent success in Lebanon's fragmented political scene was averting another leadership vacuum at the head of the army, extending General Joseph Aoun's term by a year.

With no president to appoint a successor and the caretaker government largely stripped of its powers, it fell to MPs to legislate to stop issues arising.

But, as pointed out by Melhem Khalaf – a new MP closely linked to the 2019 protests against the ruling class – this urgency to prevent another vacuum should also extend to the presidency.

He asked those who had warned of potential instability at the top of the army if a resolution was not found: “What about the risk of not electing a President of the Republic?”

Mr Khalaf, a legal expert and former head of the Beirut Bar Association, has argued that, according to article 74 of the Lebanese constitution, in the event of a presidential vacancy parliament should convene immediately and not stop until a new head of state is elected.

“If you look back, many things would really have been solved if we had a president. The commander would have been [simply] running business if there was a president. But today it's a matter of state security,” said the Lebanese Forces representative.

Since Mr Aoun's term expired in October 31 the terms of two other crucial positions have ended, with no permanent successor announced because there was no president to appoint them – General Security chief Abbas Ibrahim and controversial central bank governor Riad Salameh.

But the continued absence of a president is seen as a much more serious situation, especially with a caretaker government largely stripped of its powers, in a country where Israel and Hezbollah are engaged in daily cross border attacks.

It is also a country that has since 2019 been embroiled in one of the worst economic crises in modern history, with the local currency losing around 98 per cent of its value and much of the population plunged into poverty.

Updated: December 21, 2023, 3:00 AM