Aoun’s initiative: To make an opening in procedures, or to breach the system?

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MP Michel Aoun giving a speech at his residence in Rabieh. (Photo: Haitham Moussawi)

By: Nicolas Nassif

Published Tuesday, July 1, 2014

It is not surprising that MP Michel Aoun, leader of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), has once again alluded to the Orthodox Gathering’s electoral proposal with a view to achieve true Muslim-Christian parity in the Lebanese political establishment. However, it was truly surprising that Aoun has called for the president to be elected directly by the people, exceptionally, to vote in a new president – as though the real problem lies there, rather in the powers and role of the president post-Taif Accord.

MP Michel Aoun’s initiative, declared on Monday, marks a new turn in the presidential election saga. But it will arguably only prolong the power vacuum, and most definitely will not lead to the election of a new president any time soon, while the initiative is unlikely to go much further on its way to materializing. Consistently with Aoun’s controversial character, shocking arguments and successive surprises, the initiative will have supporters and opponents, including those who reject it by default, yet without truly stirring the pot at the level of candidatures, or the balance of power in parliament as it stands.

To put it simply, Aoun has leapt over the presidential crisis that has so far played out through seven failed electoral sessions in parliament. He has ignored the ongoing negotiations between his party and former Prime Minister Saad Hariri over the elections, and opted instead for an odd option that is not usually invoked during presidential elections: requesting an amendment to the constitution to create a new mechanism for electing the president, implicitly declaring the death of Article 49 regulating the election of the president of the republic.

However, the initiative of the FPM leader carries a number of implications:

First, the initiative considers article 49 an obstacle to electing a president because of the vertical split in parliament between March 14 and March 8, both of which lack a simple majority in parliament (half + 1) let alone the required majority (two-thirds) to sway the elections and vote in a candidate of their choice. But this was also true of previous parliaments, where no president ever had an overwhelming majority – with the exception of the election of 1964 – that allowed any bloc to determine the outcome of an election by itself. Instead, parliamentary blocs had to enter into implicit agreements, which always allowed them to go into electoral sessions and vote for one candidate or more.

However, Aoun’s initiative suggested that the problem lies in the constitutional clause, rather than the balance of power and the sectarian tensions behind it, which not only end up obstructing every electoral session, but also prevent parliament from convening, and preclude the emergence of a majority and a minority in the cabinet thanks to the threat of obstructionism there as well. For this reason, the initiative appears like a partial solution to a comprehensive problem.

Perhaps part of the crisis lies in what Aoun said in his June 16 meeting with Patriarch Mar Beshara al-Rai and a number of Maronite bishops in Bkirki, regarding the election and the motives behind his boycott of electoral sessions, amid the patriarch's insistence on electing a new president. Aoun said he would participate in an electoral session if Rai can help withdraw the nomination of MP Henri al-Helou. Patriarch Rai responded with a counter proposal, telling Aoun: go to the session and get 60 votes, and I will handle the rest.

However, this created a new dilemma for the two men, the result of the bad promises they made, as neither one of them can deliver: neither the patriarch can get MP Helou to withdraw since this decision is in the hands of MP Walid Jumblatt alone; nor can Aoun guarantee 60 votes in a session where a quorum of two thirds of the MPs is present. Indeed, as soon as such a session is held, new calculations and completely different choices could emerge.

Meanwhile, Jumblatt may not withdraw MP Helou’s candidature for the time being, since Jumblatt himself had said that Helou’s nomination was meant to prevent the election of MP Aoun and Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea.

This is the heart of the problem, the distribution of forces and coalitions, not article 49.

Second, an amendment to the constitution that would transfer the power of electing a president from parliament to the people, and transform it from a secret vote over successive rounds on the basis of a pre-specified quorum into a two-round process of public voting where competition is ultimately confined between two candidates, cannot be seen as a “limited” amendment. In effect, it would be an amendment that touches in a fundamental way on the foundations of the Taif Accord, which enshrined Lebanon’s system of government as a parliamentary system, redistributed powers, specified new power-sharing criteria, as well as criteria for balanced development and social justice, and created new constitutionally independent entities such as the Council of Ministers.

Even with the constitution of 1926, which remained in force for 64 years, the constitution was not amended in relation to the office of the president despite the broad powers it had put in the hands of the president who was elected by parliament. During that period, it was said many times that the president had too many powers in a parliamentary system, which prevented holding the president accountable, and that those powers suggested that the president was at the head of a presidential system, since a president could force a prime minister to resign, sack ministers, dissolve the parliament, and manipulate various norms.

Aoun’s initiative revives the same problem in an inverted manner: Electing a president by the people requires adopting a presidential system where the president has broad powers, since the president’s legitimacy would come from the people rather than from parliament.

Aoun wanted to make a breach in the constitution, to get a president elected by the people after candidates are first elected by their respective communities, and also to obtain the broadest possible national consensus on the president in question. However, the opening ended up being closer to an attack on many political foundations in the country.

Following the extension of his term in October 1995, President Elias Hrawi pledged to push for constitutional amendments designed to clarify some of the ambiguous powers of the president including those related to constitutional deadlines. Upon leaving office following the end of his term on May 24, President Michel Suleiman revealed a project for similar constitutional amendments to clarify some powers. However, neither bid survived for more than a day after it was declared.

Third, amending the constitution to elect a president by the people requires measures that correspond to the goal of making such a move, namely, to introduce substantial amendments to his constitutional powers.

Aoun did not want to elaborate on this – and may have even ignored this aspect –but it is impossible to elect a president by popular vote while maintaining the state of the president’s constitutional powers as they are, in that they render the president without a serious function or role: He or she does not have the power to appoint the prime minister, but only to appoint a candidate named by the MPs. The president may attend a cabinet meeting, but does not have a vote there.

The president has tight deadlines to sign cabinet decisions and laws approved by parliament, but if the president does not sign or returns them, these decisions and laws enter into force without his or her signature. The president is not the actual commander of the armed forces, which take their orders from the Council of Ministers. He or she cannot dissolve parliament when it obstructs the work of the procedural authority, or negotiate without the consent of the prime minister and the Council of Ministers. The president’s powers are dispersed, some in his or her hands exclusively, while others are in the hands of the prime minister and the Council of Ministers. Finally, the president cannot compel parliament to abide by his or her instructions, which are now often ignored and neglected.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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