Lebanon’s parliament tries for the 45th time to elect a president
After five years of civil war decimating its neighbor Syria accompanied by a flood or refugees and coupled with high unemployment and growing debt, Lebanon is facing increasing political instability. For more than two years, and despite dozens of efforts, the Lebanese parliament has failed to elect a new president, who according to the nation’s laws, must be a member of the Christian minority.
“The tone is pretty grim because we have two million refugees and the war in syria is really affecting political instability,” Carmen Geha, an associate professor at the American University in Beirut, told The Media Line. “One of the Lebanese parties is actively fighting within Syria and we have not had presidential elections.”
She was referring to Hizbullah, the Shi’ite terrorist group, which has been actively fighting in Syria on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Hizbullah also plays an important role in Lebanon, as both a political party and a social welfare organization especially in south Lebanon. Critics say that Hizbullah has been trying to delay presidential elections as it seeks electoral reform that will give it more power. The parliament, whose term expired in 2013, has postponed elections until 2017. And, there has been no President of Lebanon for 28 months.
“There is a lot of political activity going on in Lebanon right now,” Hilal Khashan, chair of the department of political studies and public administration at the American University in Beirut, told The Media Line. “But, to tell you the truth, it is ungainly political activity because I don’t think it will amount to much. I don’t think we are about to elect a new president.”
Lebanon has worked out a complicated system to include the three major religious groups in the country in its political process: Shia Muslims, Sunni Muslims, and Maronite Christians. The presidential position is reserved for a Maronite Christian and he serves as both head of state and head of the armed forces; however, this position has become more symbolic than political. The last president of Lebanon, Michel Suleiman, left office in May 2014. Since then, there have been more than forty failed opportunities to replace the president.
Currently, the most prominent presidential contender is Michel Aoun, founder of the Free Patriotic Movement. In 2006, Aoun and Hizbullah created an alliance to diminish the power of Sunni Muslims in the country. Since then, analysts say, Hizbullah has remained aligned with Aoun so as not to be seen as an extremist party.
According to Khashan, Hizbullah wants to be on good terms with Aoun but it does not want him becoming president because it wants to push through electoral change that would give Hizbullah more power.
Politically, there are currently two “package deals” in the country. The first is an agreement between Presidential candidate Michel Aoun and ex-Prime Minister Saad Hariri to support each other.
“Aoun has made it obvious that if he is nominated by Hariri (to be president), he would help enable Hariri to become prime minister. Essentially, you help me become president and I help you become Prime Minister again,” Khashan said. “(They are) two men who are desperate for political office.”
Hariri, who had campaigned to nominate Marada Movement Chief Suleiman Franjieh as president in 2015, recently returned from a two month jaunt to Europe and Saudi Arabia.
In an effort to move past this political impasse, parliamentary speaker, Nabih Berri, who also heads the Shia Amal Movement, allied with Hizbullah, proposed another “package deal.” This proposal is Hizbullah’s way of sabotaging the first “package deal” and stopping the election of Michel Aoun as president, who they support in public but not in private.
While this deal seemingly resolves the issue of the president, shortens the term of parliament and fixes the electoral law in the country, analysts believe that this “deal” is actually a disguise to create a new constituent assembly dominated by Hizbullah.
While the country is facing mounting political instability, the five-year civil war in Syria continues and unemployment has risen. In many cases, Syrian refugees are willing to work for much lower wages than Lebanese nationals.
“Lebanon seems to be more subordinated and is very much impacted by the Syrian conflict,” Tamarice Soukhoury, an assistant professor and the associate director of conflict resolution at the American University in Beirut, told The Media Line.
The dominant concerns in the country are about containing ISIS radicalization and finding a solution to the Syrian conflict, which has left Lebanon with some 1.5 million documented refugees. As a small country, Lebanon has long been affected by its neighbors.
“There is an overarching feeling that for Lebanon, it all depends on what happens in the region and what will happen in Syria and Iran and Saudi Arabia. Maybe in the past they could have talked about the predominance of power but now it is about what will happen in the region,” Tamarice Soukhoury said.
Katie Beiter, a student journalist at The Media Line, is a graduate of Rice University.