Hezbollah's presidential pick shows how little power Lebanon's Christians have left

With the party backing Suleiman Franjieh, an important issue is brought to the fore

Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah addresses his supporters through a screen in Beirut's southern suburbs, on January 17.   Reuters
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It appears that Hezbollah has taken the decision to push for the election of its preferred presidential candidate in Lebanon, Suleiman Franjieh, after months of not doing so while awaiting a potential agreement around a consensual candidate. However, bringing in Mr Franjieh contains many potential risks for the party.

In the Lebanese system, parliament elects the president, who is always a Maronite Christian. For a candidate to win, he or she requires a two-thirds majority of 128 parliamentarians in a first round of voting, or an absolute majority in a second round. The party’s strategy today appears to be focused on ensuring that there is a quorum during the second round, so that Mr Franjieh can win 65 votes.

This will not be easy. For Mr Franjieh to be seen as communally legitimate, he would need the support of at least one of the two major Christian blocs in parliament: that dominated by the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) led by Gebran Bassil and that of the Lebanese Forces led by Samir Geagea. Mr Bassil is a Hezbollah ally, but has presidential ambitions of his own and has said he would not support Mr Franjieh.

Newly-elected Lebanese member of parliament Gebran Bassil arrives to attend the first session of the newly-elected assembly at its headquarters in the capital Beirut on May 31, 2022. AFP

This situation has led to rising tensions between the FPM and Hezbollah. Hezbollah’s likely calculation is that if it can convince Mr Bassil and his bloc to attend an electoral session, it would at least secure a quorum to go to a second round of voting, allowing the party to garner the votes needed to elect Mr Franjieh. It is not impossible that it might reach such an outcome, but the aftermath may be quite problematic for the party.

For one thing, it would create resentment among many Christians once again that Maronite presidents are always selected by Muslim-majority parties, even when they fail to enjoy widespread backing within their own community. Indeed, Mr Franjieh is not considered a leader with national standing, and only just managed to get his son elected to parliament in the May 2022 elections.

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Even if Bassil compels his bloc to go to parliament and allows Franjieh to win, things would not end there

Michel Aoun, the previous president, created a paradox. He spent much of his political career denouncing the Taif Agreement of 1989, which amended the constitution and stripped the Maronite presidency of many of its prerogatives. However, during his term he clarified many ambiguities of his office, indicating that the president retained significant discretionary powers. This showed many of his co-religionists that, though it was diminished, the presidency retained authority.

In a way, this was a step in reconciling Christians with Taif. However, if today the Muslim-majority parties go back to the habits of the 1990s, and select a president with no substantial communal base, this would only emphasise to Mr Franjieh’s co-religionists that Taif was always mainly about undermining the Maronites.

Even if Mr Bassil compels his bloc to go to parliament and allows Mr Franjieh to win, things would not end there. Almost certainly, he would spend Mr Franjieh’s mandate attacking the president, while Mr Geagea would do the same given his belief that Mr Franjieh is merely a Hezbollah minion. In other words, both major Christian leaders would try to delegitimise a Franjieh presidency among Christians, and would very likely succeed.

Leader of the opposition Maronite Christian Al-Marada movement Sleiman Franjieh walks out of a voting booth to cast his vote at a polling station at the northern Lebanse town of Zgharta on June 7, 2009. Lebanese voters cast their ballots in a high-stakes general election pitting a Western-backed coalition against an Iranian-backed alliance led by the Hezbollah militant group. AFP PHOTO/STR / AFP PHOTO

This would defeat Hezbollah’s purpose in bringing Mr Franjieh to office. Hezbollah sees regional tensions looming, as an extreme right-wing government has taken office in Israel and prospects for a nuclear deal between the US and Iran disappear. The party’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, has stated several times that in this context it wants a president “who will not stab us in the back.”

When many Christians hear Mr Nasrallah imposing his conditions on a new president, while ignoring their own preferences for a communally representative figure, it makes them bristle. One can expect Mr Bassil and Mr Geagea to react accordingly.

Mr Geagea implied what might lie ahead recently, when he said that if Hezbollah imposed a president, it might be time to change Lebanon’s political order. Many people accused him of seeking the country's partition. However, he could just as easily have been warning that Mr Franjieh’s authority would not be seen as valid in Christian-majority areas, a notion that, while vague, may be a minefield for Hezbollah and the president.

If Mr Bassil agrees with Mr Geagea, and there is no reason why he would not as both have a shared interest in seeing Mr Franjieh fail, this could potentially alter how the state is organised. It might lead them to seek greater autonomy by demanding the implementation and a widening of Taif’s clauses on administrative decentralisation, long a Christian demand, which was never applied.

This could generate centrifugal forces in Lebanon’s political system. For Hezbollah, it would erode the party’s latitude to control the country through state institutions as it perennially tries to inflict its preferences on other political forces.

A Hezbollah-dominated order is unnatural in the context of the Lebanese sectarian system. The party believes it can indefinitely dominate Lebanon while ignoring the dynamics in the different religious communities. This is a formula that can lead to disaster for the party, as hubris invariably leads to nemesis.

Published: February 01, 2023, 4:00 AM