Recently, an event took place that may say a great deal about the direction of Lebanon’s presidential election later this year. Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah hosted an iftar to which he invited two leading candidates for Lebanon’s presidency, who are also rivals: Gebran Bassil, the head of the Free Patriotic Movement, and Suleiman Franjieh, a politician close to Syria’s ruling Al Assad family.
Nasrallah’s invitation was aimed at lowering tensions between the two men in the run-up to the parliamentary election on May 15. Hezbollah believes that if a nuclear deal is concluded with Iran, it would reinforce Tehran’s power in the region. Therefore, it does not want to see its two leading Christian allies undermine each other, which could have negative repercussions on the party’s broader electoral prospects.
However, if this is Hezbollah’s reasoning, it applies just as much to the presidential election. The party seeks it to avoid a rift between its partners, which would force it to publicly choose between the two. Rather, Hezbollah is trying to find a solution to the presidency behind the scenes, and unconfirmed reports suggest Nasrallah has notified Mr Bassil that the party will not support him in this election, but would in six years’ time.
Whether such reports are true or not, it is certainly correct that Hezbollah would have difficulty imposing a consensus for a Bassil presidency. First of all, he has a woefully insufficient number of parliamentary votes to secure a majority. (In Lebanon, Parliament elects the president.) Nor could Hezbollah persuade its leading ally, Speaker Nabih Berri, to support Mr Bassil, as the two are political enemies. Finally, as Syria supports Mr Franjieh, Hezbollah would prefer to avoid antagonising Damascus.
More advantageously, by promising to endorse Mr Bassil in the future, if that is confirmed, Hezbollah would lock him into an alliance for the coming years, preserving its inroads into the Christian community. Denying Mr Bassil the presidency now would also please Mr Franjieh, who had hoped to become president in 2016, but had to cool his heels when Hezbollah pushed to have Mr Bassil’s father-in-law, Michel Aoun, elected instead.
Mr Bassil is at a crossroads in his relatively short political career. His gains have all been due to the fact that he has had the unconditional assistance of Mr Aoun since 2005, and that Hezbollah was willing to cut him much slack to make the President happy. But today, as Mr Aoun prepares to step down, Mr Bassil will soon be on his own.
If Mr Bassil believes that Hezbollah will favour his being elected president later on, this could pose problems for him. He is under US sanctions for allegations of corruption, but also because Washington regards him as a prominent associate of Hezbollah. Therefore, by remaining close to the party, he would make it more difficult to have the sanctions lifted, complicating his eventual election.
Secondly, even if Hezbollah were to promise to support him in six years’ time, what is the value of that promise? Mr Aoun is in his mid-eighties, and if he passes from the scene in the coming years, Mr Bassil will have to manage the many dissensions he created in his own party without the President there to side with him in internal disputes. If his position erodes among Christians, Hezbollah could be tempted to reconsider its attitude.
Mr Bassil has tended to be his own worst enemy. He is widely viewed as rapacious, corrupt and arrogant, and in his rise to power he has alienated most major Lebanese political actors. For as long as he enjoys both good ties with Hezbollah and Mr Aoun’s approval, this attitude is sustainable. But things are changing, while Mr Bassil is not.
That is why the parliamentary election will be of special importance to him. Hezbollah is seeking to guarantee significant electoral support for FPM-backed candidates, but the party has a limited say in the district where Mr Bassil will be standing. If he does not win back his seat, his presidential chances will wilt, but so will any claim that he is the leading Maronite Christian representative.
For now, Hezbollah is likely to hold onto Mr Bassil as an ally, as it needs one in the Maronite community. But this creates a dilemma for Mr Bassil. If he is seen as being dependent on the party, his standing will decrease, since many Christians are very uneasy about Hezbollah’s hold on the country. And if he distances himself from Hezbollah, the antipathy he has provoked will only lead to his greater political isolation.
Mr Bassil’s problem is that he stands for nothing. His desire to become president, and do whatever it takes to achieve this, has turned the FPM into an extension of his ambition. It would not be the first party to subordinate itself to the goals of its leader, but in a time of national collapse in Lebanon, many people are hungry for new ideas. What they may come to see in Mr Bassil is just a warmed-over version of a narcissism they dislike.