Lebanon entered a presidential vacuum today after rival political factions failed five times to elect a successor to President Michel Suleiman, whose six-year term has ended.
Many Lebanese worry that the vacuum could revive political and sectarian tensions after a brief period of calm following the formation of a new government in March. The last few months saw a curtailment of suicide car bombings and rocket attacks in Shiite areas of Lebanon.
The cabinet will assume presidential powers in the interim, although there are still concerns that the vacancy could lead to logjams on crucial issues and even delay parliamentary elections scheduled for the fall which were already postponed from last year.
The presidential vacuum comes as Lebanon is struggling to cope with the spillover from the war in neighboring Syria, including the arrival of more than a million Syrian refugees and worsening sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shiites. The car bombings and rocket attacks were carried out by radical Sunni groups who oppose the Hezbollah's intervention in Syria on behalf of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
“Today, the priority in Lebanon is Sunni-Shiite concord,” says Michael Young, opinion editor of the Beirut Daily Star newspaper. “So the longer we delay over a president, the longer we delay everything. It delays the whole process of moving toward normalization and letting the government function.”
Lebanon is no stranger to prolonged political paralysis. It took almost a year for the rival March 14 and March 8 political factions to agree on cabinet portfolios that allowed the formation of the current government in March.
Lebanese presidents are always drawn from the Maronite sect as part of the country’s power-sharing system among its 18 officially recognized sects. The other two top posts, prime minister and parliamentary speaker, are reserved for Sunnis and Shiites respectively.
Mr. Suleiman was elected in May 2008 in a deal that ended the worst internal fighting since the end of the 1975-90 civil war and a SIX-month presidential void. He was regarded as a consensus candidate acceptable to the Western- and Saudi-backed March 14 alliance and its Iran- and Syria-supported March 8 rival. The factions are named after the dates of pro- and anti-Syrian rallies in 2005 following the assassination of Rafik Hariri, a former prime minister.
But Suleiman fell out of favor with Hezbollah recently after he criticized the militant Shiite party’s intervention in Syria.
“We know that we are not isolated from our surroundings… but national unity should push us against interfering in the neighboring countries’ affairs, and compel us to withdraw from anything that separates us,” Suleiman said in a reference to Hezbollah during his farewell speech on Saturday.
In Lebanon, parliamentarians elect the president, but four electoral sessions failed to reach quorum and one returned an insufficient number of votes for any one candidate.
The actual and potential presidential candidates fall into three categories: political leaders, civil servants, and minor politicians.
The political leaders are Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces which is part of the March 14 alliance, and Michel Aoun, the leader of the March 8-aligned Free Patriotic Movement. Of the two, only Geagea has formally declared his candidacy, but he failed to reach the necessary two-thirds of the initial vote in the 128-seat parliament. Both figures are probably too divisive to become president.
The civil servants include Gen. Jean Kahwagi, commander of the Lebanese army, and Riad Salameh, the governor of the Central Bank. General Kahwagi is a strong contender and is probably Hezbollah’s preferred candidate although it would require amending the constitution, which forbids a top civil servant immediately standing for election as president. Still, that law has been changed before – if Kahwagi is elected, he would be the third army commander in a row to ascend to the presidency and the fourth since Lebanon’s independence in 1943.
The third category of minor politicians refers to parliamentarians with small support bases who could be selected as consensus figures. Among the names that are mentioned are Jean Obeid, a former minister and perennial also-ran during past presidential elections, and Henri Helou, the preferred candidate of Walid Jumblatt, leader of the Druze community.