Even the candidate favoured to be Lebanon's next president faces obstacles

The person tipped to win needs the support of at least one of the major Christian parties

Lebanese President Michel Aoun, follows the parliamentary elections on screens from the presidency palace in Beirut, on May 15. AP
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Lebanon’s politicians have started to think seriously about the country’s upcoming presidential election. President Michel Aoun’s term ends on October 31, and constitutionally parliament must vote for a successor within a two-month timeframe before that deadline.

While it is unclear who will succeed Mr Aoun, or even whether an election will be held on time if the country’s different political forces fail to agree on a candidate, it is fairly certain the president will leave office. Doubts had arisen months ago, when Mr Aoun vowed that he would not leave office if it meant a presidential vacuum would follow.

This was seen as a manoeuvre that would allow Mr Aoun to place his son-in-law Gebran Bassil in office. The idea was that an expected deadlock over any alternative candidate would permit Mr Aoun to impose Mr Bassil’s election as a way out of the impasse. That idea went nowhere among Lebanon’s political forces, however, so it is likely Mr Aoun will go on time.

Even Mr Bassil’s presidential ambitions have apparently been put on the backburner, amid signs that his major ally, Hezbollah, will not back his candidacy this time. While the party favours Mr Bassil, trying to force such a toxic figure on the country would cause much opposition, notably from Hezbollah’s leading ally, parliament speaker Nabih Berri. It could also mobilise Mr Bassil’s many opponents to boycott the election, preventing a quorum.

In April, during Ramadan, Hezbollah’s secretary general Hassan Nasrallah invited Mr Bassil and Suleiman Franjieh, another of its Maronite Christian allies, to an iftar. Mr Nasrallah sought to reconcile the two rivals in the run-up to the presidential election.

What emerged from the gathering was an interpretation that Mr Nasrallah had somehow made it clear to Mr Bassil that Hezbollah would back Mr Franjieh for the presidency this year, and would push for Mr Bassil’s election in the future. While there was no evidence for this, Mr Bassil’s attitude changed in the weeks that followed. In July, in an interview carried by Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television station, he declared he could “either be president or a maker of presidents,” admitting implicitly that he might not now seek office himself.

The interview followed a meeting between a Franjieh ally, Farid Haykal Al Khazen, and Mr Bassil, which many observers read as being tied to negotiations over Mr Bassil’s electoral support for Mr Franjieh. For Mr Bassil to back a Franjieh candidacy, he would probably seek to impose demands on him that would include naming a new central bank governor, a new army commander, perhaps several key ministers, and other concessions.

Mr Franjieh has no intention of being at Mr Bassil’s mercy, but nor can he spurn him, as he needs the endorsement of a large Christian bloc in parliament. Mr Bassil’s chief rival, Samir Geagea, the leader of the Lebanese Forces, who heads a large bloc of his own, is not likely to go with Mr Franjieh, who is close to the Syrian regime that Mr Geagea opposes.

Already, Mr Bassil has raised the ante on Mr Franjieh, pointing out that he sees no particular reason to endorse a Franjieh presidency. This could be brinkmanship as the two men negotiate, but it also indicates that Mr Bassil is not happy with the situation.

It is entirely conceivable that Hezbollah told Mr Bassil nothing specific about its intentions towards the presidency, but kept things so vague that Mr Bassil understood the party would not promote his candidacy. If so, then how far can he go to squeeze what he wants out of Mr Franjieh, if he knows that Hezbollah ultimately desires his election as president?

In other words, if Mr Bassil wants an assurance that Hezbollah will back his own presidency down the road, he may not be able to deny Mr Franjieh a victory. To preserve his ties with Hezbollah, Mr Bassil may be compelled to ask his bloc to vote for Mr Franjieh, whether all his demands are met or not. Hezbollah benefits from rivalry among its Christian allies, because this allows it to act as the ultimate power broker.

There has also been speculation that parliament might seek a compromise candidate, one who benefits from international confidence and who could be a domestic unifier. The name of a former finance minister, Jihad Azour, an official at the International Monetary Fund, has been mentioned. However, at a time when several Arab countries are moving closer to Israel, it remains to be seen whether Hezbollah would be willing to go along with a middle-of-the-road candidate rather than someone they trust.

Mr Franjieh fits the bill on that front, and Hezbollah even seems to have the votes to bring him to office. But with countries such as France and Saudi Arabia having influence in Lebanon, Iran may choose to co-operate with them. It is too early to predict outcomes, but regional realities suggest Hezbollah will not want to allow a long vacuum in the country, as it needs a president in place if there is a conflict with Israel or one involving Iran. So, Lebanon, the country of perennial, destructive voids, may yet have a new head of state by year’s end.

Published: August 03, 2022, 4:00 AM