Commentary

Choosing Lebanon's Next President

Middle East In Focus

Middle East Policy Council

Presidential and parliamentary elections are in full swing across the region. The latest country to begin pondering the election of their chief executive is Lebanon. According to the Lebanese constitution, the presidential candidate must come from the Maronite sect, thus narrowing down the field of potential candidates to a handful of politicians. With one of them already throwing their hat in the ring and two or three more waiting for the most opportune moment to follow suit, it is expected that the road to the selection of Lebanon’s next president will be politically treacherous.

Much of the talk surrounding the choice of the next president has focused on the qualities of the candidate, and in particular the question of whether any of the potential candidates can be considered strong leaders. For example, Al Arabiya’s Eyad Abu Shakra writes about the Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Rahi, who according to Abu Shakra, “is tireless and unwavering in his calls for the election of a ‘strong’ Lebanese president, who under Lebanon’s constitution must be a Maronite....The term ‘strong president’ has many different possible connotations. The most prominent is that the president should enjoy widespread popularity within his own sect. However, the Lebanese know that traditionally, the Maronite leadership is not held by one person alone....Today, the patriarch recognizes four Maronite leaders whom he consistently invites to decisive discussions — especially discussions about the presidency — to the exclusion of others....The real solution for Lebanon lies in the election of a wise and fair-minded president who is equidistant from all the local players and who can truly just ‘manage’ the deep-seated crisis.”

The challenges that will most likely face the next president seem to have done nothing to stop at least one candidate, Samir Geagea, the head of the Lebanese Forces Party, to publically declare his candidacy. An Asharq Alawsat report noted Geagea made the announcement on Friday “with many analysts believing that the veteran Maronite politician has a strong chance of succeeding Michel Suleiman as Lebanon’s next head of state....Geagea described himself as a ‘natural candidate’ for Lebanon’s Maronite community, adding that he will announce his political program in two weeks’ time. The senior March 14 Alliance figure has never before run for the presidency, but said that he thought that the time was finally right to seek the post.”

But he may not be the only candidate, argues Joseph A. Kechichian (senior writer for Gulf News), as other potential candidates begin to sound out the leaders of the various political forces: “While the Future movement has not outright said they would back Geagea, it is widely assumed they will, and given that they hold a majority of seats, would make Geagea the strongest candidate. Therefore, Aoun is likely not to put himself up for election.... Some of Aoun’s parliamentary blocs as well as his relative, Alain Aoun, have made comments that Aoun would be a consensual candidate rather than a partisan candidate and called on ‘all political forces [to] begin to determine their positions regarding the presidential [elections] starting today,’ which could be interpreted as an invitation to Hezbollah to endorse Aoun....Clearly now the ball is in former Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri’s court who could return from his security-imposed exile in Saudi Arabia to assume the premiership.”

Regardless of endorsement by some of the bigger political forces, the real kingmaker might be the leader of a smaller faction, who, as The Daily Star’s (Lebanon) Michael Young points out, might have the right amount of votes to lean the outcome one way or another: “In the end, much depends on what Walid Jumblatt decides. Geagea may feel that the Druze leader is more inclined to lean toward him than toward Aoun, but that may be a miscalculation. Jumblatt prefers that neither man become president, but today he has a more pressing problem that he needs to resolve, namely to ensure that the parliamentary elections next November are held on the basis of the 1960 law....Aoun and Geagea have high expectations, maybe too high. Neither can be ruled out when it comes to the presidency, but in the coming weeks most of the non-Christian political forces will look for ways to circumvent them. If that fails, the onus will be on the centrists, Walid Jumblatt above all, to lean one way or the other. That’s when the real bargaining will begin.”

Considering the transactional nature of the selection process, it is not surprising that many segments of Lebanese society have expressed dismay with what some have considered a farcical vote. in an op-ed for Al Arabiya, Nayla Tueni expresses concern that the country’s vital security and economial concerns will remain unadressed as the political class divide continues to grow: “the time has come to put behind us the absurd wars we’ve witnessed.... A vacuum is an insult to the Lebanese and exchanging accusations and insults is further humiliation as it confirms immaturity when looking forward to the future and exposes the incapability of uniting towards establishing one Lebanon. Despite their vitality, current facts regarding the presidential elections are worrying as they indicate a huge gap in the vision of this aspired-to Lebanon.”

Finally, the ambivalence many feel about the upcoming presidential elections is demonstrated by Octavia Nasr, who characterizes the race as a circus, while refusing to discourage the presidential candidates from taking part in the race: “This is not a presidential race, it is a circus! Except this one is dark and scary; no fun here, only fear of the unknown while plotting takes place in shadowy corners. It takes guts to run for President in Lebanon for those who dare go against the current and make waves. Samir Geagea is not shameless to throw his hat in the ring; it would actually be shameful if he did not. Geagea like Franjiyeh, Aoun, Gemayel, Kattar and other hopefuls for the Maronite presidential seat, has every right to run that race. If he wins, it would be only on merit. Lebanon might actually succeed in electing a president without approval from Syria or Iran for the first time since Bashir Gemayel.”


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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at info@mepc.org.