Lebanon: No rush to elect a new president

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Birds fly outside the parliament building in downtown Beirut as members of parliament gather to elect the new Lebanese president on April 23, 2014. (Photo: AFP-Joseph Eid)

By: Ghassan Saoud

Published Saturday, April 26, 2014

Just two weeks ago, the Solidarity Party could have organized an election rally at Forum De Beyrouth and invited representatives of the March 8 alliance. The party’s leader, Emile Rahme, would have taken the stage and read a presidential program prepared for him by a leading consulting company.

MP Michel Aoun, MP Suleiman Frangieh, Hezbollah and Amal might have supported him in the first round of elections so Rahme can pull off a major victory.

He could have been a front page story, achieving yet another victory. Just imagine the media frenzy he could have generated by sending a delegation to meet with leaders of political blocs and sharing with them his program.

He only needed to dedicate two weeks of his time for the race, and to allocate about two hundred thousand dollars for the campaign. Rahme, an MP from Hermel, could have easily received at least 58 votes, with a 10-vote lead against his closest rival and former friend, Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces. That would have been Rahme’s third victory.

Many could have enjoyed watching such a show. They would have admired Rahme’s confidence, astonished that he had received all those votes, and believing that he had been so close to winning, considered him a real candidate - giving him a fourth victory.

Fortunately, Rahme refused to play this game. He had nothing to prove neither for himself, nor for others, and wasn’t willing to run after a mirage.

Today, Geagea’s candidacy is over. According to an informed MP in the March 8 alliance, it was one of their own deputies who casted a vote for former President Amin al-Gemayel, as he considered him “one of Geagea victims.” Another deputy was planning to vote for MP Michel al-Murr for the same reason.

Meanwhile, MP Salim Karam got the permission of his bloc’s leader, Suleiman Frangieh, and voted for his friend MP Henry Helou. Six papers in the ballot box had the names of victims that Geagea was accused of murdering, but despite this fact, blank votes prevailed.

Moving on to the next session, no one expects MP Walid Jumblatt to retract his position, describing electing Geagea as a declaration of a new civil war.

Addressing those opposing his candidacy due to his legacy of being a warlord, Geagea said that other militia leaders became ministers after the promulgation of the amnesty law. Meanwhile, former Lebanese Forces official Regina Snaifer was dismayed that a person involved in committing massacres, killing politicians and their children, and even executing his own comrades by pouring concrete over them and throwing them into the sea, dares to run for president and even receives the votes of over a third of parliament.

In the meantime, Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri is waiting to make sure that General Michel Aoun has indeed made an under the table agreement with the Future Movement. In fact, since the formation of the new government, Berri has been telling people in his inner circle that some sort of secret agreement has been reached though he is not sure about it yet. Meanwhile, sources from within Hezbollah refuse to discuss any other candidate, for them “our main candidate is Aoun and our second option is any name proposed by Aoun.”

Aoun insists on being a consensus candidate. He refused to run in the first round because he didn’t want to appear as a rival to Geagea, then he dealt with the Future Movement as if the latter was compelled to support Geagea’s absurd candidacy in the first round.

This time, the Free Patriotic Movement is awaiting Hariri’s position about Aoun’s potential candidacy to decide whether to provide a quorum. If Hariri’s team continues to stalls, Aoun and his allies would not attend the next session, creating a lack of quorum. However, if Hariri officially declares the same negative position that has been reiterated by Future Movement MPs, Aoun will have to reconsider his options as a non-consensus candidate.

Interestingly, though the Future Movement MPs and officials don’t have anything positive to say about Aoun, even in their private sessions, former PM Saad Hariri and his adviser Nader al-Hariri have been giving positive signals to Aoun and Foreign Affairs Minister Gebran Bassil.

According to some sources, Hariri may resort to a maneuver where Saudi Arabia would instruct Jumblatt to vote for Aoun, giving him his needed 65 votes to become president while Hariri saves face in front his supporters and Christian allies. However, sources close to Jumblatt denied that such discussion ever took place.

In any case, besides statements describing Geagea’s candidacy as rude and bold, no serious consultations about the presidential elections have taken place at Jumblatt’s residence in Clemenceau in the past week.

It is not clear whether Jumblatt would turn down a request from Hezbollah to elect Aoun after the latter overcame Hariri, Saudi and American vetoes. In fact, for Jumblatt, there are fewer repercussions for electing Aoun than when he named Najib Mikati as prime minister following the collapse of the Hariri government in early 2011. Back then, voting for Mikati was equal to signing the decision of banishing Hariri.

On the diplomatic level, the US ambassador has been meeting with a number of officials but hasn’t declared any position yet. He has reiterated his opposition to a presidential vacuum without suggesting any candidate or advising any party to follow a certain political path.

Meanwhile, the Syrian ambassador has been saying in private sessions that it is almost impossible to elect a president in Lebanon before the Syrian elections. Oddly, Saudi diplomatic activity has been at a minimum level, probably due to changes within the political ranks of the kingdom while its ambassador has been absent from Beirut most of the time. Also, France is hesitant to play any role in Lebanon. Officials meeting with foreign ambassadors report that no country is interested in sponsoring an all-inclusive Lebanese settlement, changing the balance of power or comparing candidates.

No winner can be foreseen in the second round of elections scheduled for next week or the one after. In fact, Speaker Berri had called for 18 sessions before electing President Michel Suleiman. Amid the stable security situation and a functioning government, informed sources are saying that there is no urgent need to elect a president before the coming phase becomes a bit clearer.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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