Monday, December 9, 2013

Guessing game begins on presidential elections

[Originally posted at NOW]

Though candidates’ names are now being floated, some believe there may not be elections at all.

With President Michel Suleiman’s six-year term due to expire in just over six months on May 25, 2014, the search for the former army commander’s successor is now underway, amid fears that the country – already without a cabinet – may be heading for prolonged political paralysis, driven by heightened violence both at home and in neighboring Syria.

According to the constitution, parliament will be required to convene some time between March 25 and April 25 to vote in the next president, who by longstanding convention must be a Maronite Christian. Unlike the case in many other countries, presidential candidates do not embark on extensive campaigning processes, pledging policy reforms and debating their rivals. Instead, the president is elected by a two-thirds parliamentary majority, typically after agreement has been reached behind the scenes by political parties and, more often than not, their regional and international patrons.

As such, with the region presently in a state of deep divisions over such issues as the Syrian conflict and the Iranian nuclear agreement, several sources expressed doubt to NOW that consensus could be achieved in time for May 25, in which case there would either be a vacuum or an extension of Suleiman’s term, something the president says he opposes. Both of Suleiman’s predecessors, Emile Lahoud and Elias Hrawi, had their terms extended by three years in controversial circumstances.

“At the moment, the most pressing question is not who will be president, but whether we will have elections at all,” said an adviser to a March 8-aligned minister who requested anonymity as he was not authorized to speak with the press. Serious tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, prominent backers of the March 14 and March 8 blocs, respectively, were the most substantial obstacle facing the process, the source said.

“The problem is nobody is talking to anybody else. There’s no dialogue,” agreed MP Ghassan Moukheiber of the March 8-aligned Change and Reform bloc.

March 14 politicians concurred that regional developments were not conducive to timely elections, arguing the recent US-Iran rapprochement would put March 8 in a position of weakness at the bargaining table, thus giving them an incentive to postpone.

“Traditionally, [elections required] an American-Syrian agreement,” said Future Movement MP Bassem al-Shab. “Syria now is out of the picture. There has to be an American-Iranian agreement now. And the Iranians want to use this opportunity to open up to the Sunni Arab world; they’re not going to pick someone inflammatory. So Hezbollah may find themselves in an [unfavorable] situation.”

Nonetheless, both Shab and Moukheiber said their parties would work earnestly for the holding of elections on time. “Not having elections is a sign of a failed state,” said Shab. “It would be the last nail in the coffin of our democracy.”

Indeed, some political powerbrokers have already initiated a consultation process, with the Future Movement sending a delegation to meet the Maronite Patriarch on November 28. Following the meeting, reports emerged that the Patriarch had floated the following names as a tentative shortlist: Free Patriotic Movement leader MP Michel Aoun, Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, Kataeb leader Amin Gemayel, Marada Movement leader MP Suleiman Franjieh, Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh, Lebanese Armed Forces Commander Jean Kahwaji, former minister Jean Obeid, and former minister MP Boutros Harb.

Of those names, Geagea – the leading March 14 Christian politician – has explicitly rejected Aoun and Kahwaji. In an interview with NOW, Geagea confirmed he would put himself forward as a candidate.

Obeid, however, was mentioned by the March 8 ministerial source as the likeliest candidate at present. “He’s the only one of whom it can be said that March 8 will surely accept him, and March 14 can work with him.” A 74-year-old former lawyer and journalist from the Zgharta district, Obeid served in several cabinets under the late Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri during periods of positive relations between Hariri and the Syrian regime. In the run-up to the 2008 elections, during which Obeid was also being contemplated, leaked US embassy cables show that he was considered too close to Damascus by the American ambassador, although the Saudi ambassador described him as “good” and lamented that March 14 did not back his candidacy.

At the same time, others within both March 14 and March 8 told NOW it was still too early to speculate over specific names, as historically the successful candidate only becomes known within the final weeks.

“Serious candidates will not be named at this stage,” said Moukheiber. “Any name being presented now is assumed to be doomed.”

“It ain’t over until the fat lady sings,” agreed Shab.

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