Sunday, May 18, 2014

What happens if there's no president?

[Originally posted at NOW]

Lebanon has just 11 days to elect a new president. NOW looks at what could happen if it fails to do so.

There are only 11 days left before the expiry of Lebanese President Michel Suleiman’s term in office, and two parliamentary sessions scheduled during which lawmakers may reach agreement on his successor. With the country’s key March 14 and March 8 coalitions remaining deeply divided on the issue, expectations are low that these parliamentary sessions will even yield the quorum necessary to assemble at all, let alone deliver a new arrival to Baabda Palace.

Should no one be elected by May 25, then, the question inevitably arises as to what happens next. Article 62 of Lebanon’s constitution stipulates plainly that the cabinet assumes the president’s powers “by delegation” in the event of a presidential vacuum “for any reason.” Prime Minister Tammam Salam has already made remarks to this effect, seeking to reassure citizens that the government would continue to function more or less as normal. Temporary presidential vacuums are by no means unprecedented in Lebanon – indeed, a six month interregnum occurred at the end of the term of Suleiman’s predecessor, Emile Lahoud.

There are, however, other possibilities. One is an extension of Suleiman’s term until a successor is found. This is reportedly favored by the Maronite patriarch – whose influence, over an appointment customarily reserved exclusively for Maronites, is not insignificant – and the US ambassador, among others. All analysts with whom NOW spoke agreed, though, that the proposal is unfeasible, given that it would require a two-thirds majority in parliament to make the necessary constitutional amendment; a majority it could not secure in light of March 8’s firm and vocal objection to it. Suleiman himself, moreover, has stated from the beginning that he rejects the extension of his term.

In which case, observers told NOW the likely alternative is a caretaker presidency handled by the cabinet, as per the constitution, until all relevant political factions come to agreement on a successor.

“It is very difficult [to imagine that] a president will be elected before the 25th,” said Hareth Sleiman, a senior member of the independent Democratic Renewal (Tajaddod) Movement. “We are now looking for a candidate on which both axes will agree.”

This prospect has raised concerns that any presidential void could persist for some time, much as the country went without a cabinet for almost 11 months before the current one was formed in February 2014.

“If there’s no election by 25 May, I don’t know if there’ll be one by 25 June, or 25 August,” said Kataeb Party head Amin Gemayel – himself a candidate – on Monday.

There are a number of reasons why this delay could be substantial, according to observers. One argument postulates that the country’s powerbrokers are waiting for the resolution of numerous regional political question-marks, particularly as regards neighboring Syria, where the outcome of the civil war could have momentous consequences on Lebanon. Lebanese presidential terms last six years, which the country’s factions may deem a long time to endure the consequences of any political miscalculations at this stage. Adding to this is the news earlier this week that Saudi Arabia has agreed to enter talks with its longtime foe, Iran. Both countries wield extensive influence over Lebanon’s March 14 and March 8 coalitions, respectively, and any changes in their relationship would likely have corresponding implications for Lebanon.

“[In light of the Saudi-Iran news,] there might [now] be coordination between different external and Arab powers to get a neutral president, like [Central Bank governor] Riad Salameh,” Sleiman told NOW.

Others observers say the delay will also be caused by conflicting interests between Hezbollah and Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM); nominal March 8 allies who may nonetheless be supporting different candidates. According to March 14 MP Bassem al-Shab, the FPM seeks to elect Aoun himself, while Hezbollah quietly prefers Lebanese Armed Forces commander General Jean Qahwaji, and this divergence is causing both parties to favor a delay.

“If General Aoun is elected president then the other General’s [political] career would end,” Shab told NOW, referring to Qahwaji. “And if the head of the army becomes president, then the career of [Aoun] comes to an end […] I think a lot of people would like to see the deadline pass without a president because that would really favor [Qahwaji].”

There is, in addition to the above scenarios, another alternative, according to a source within the centrist Progressive Socialist Party who spoke to NOW on condition of anonymity: that of Prime Minister Salam’s resignation. While the source deemed it an unlikely event, its likelihood would reportedly increase if excessive pressure were placed upon Salam in his dual role as prime minister and caretaker president. The effects of such a move, should it transpire, could be considerably debilitating, said the source.

“It isn’t exactly a vacuum if we don’t get a president after 25 May, because the cabinet takes over the president’s powers.”

“But if Salam were to resign, then we would have a real vacuum.”

Myra Abdallah contributed reporting.

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