Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat—Lebanese politicians remained at odds over the country’s next president on Sunday, as the end of incumbent Michel Suleiman’s term on May 25 approaches.
Despite the wishes of all political parties to avoid a political vacuum, a leading political figure involved in the talks to select presidential candidates told Asharq Al-Awsat on Sunday that “nothing has been decided yet on the presidential issue, and no group can claim to have achieved any progress towards reaching an agreement on time.”
The source, who requested anonymity, added: “There is no evidence so far which indicates the possibility of electing a new president before the end of President Suleiman’s term . . . If we pass the constitutional deadline on May 25 and are unable to elect a president, then nobody will be able to predict how long the presidential vacuum will last, which should cause concern for the political powers due to the dangerous consequences of this.”
Under Lebanon’s complex confessional political system, the role of head of state—elected by a secret ballot of MPs—is traditionally reserved for a member of the country’s Maronite Christian community.
However, both Lebanon’s Christians and the country’s two main political blocs, the March 8 Alliance and the March 14 Alliance, are unable to agree on a single candidate. The divisions resulted in an inconclusive vote in parliament at the start of the month, and boycotts of two subsequent parliamentary voting sessions. The speaker of Lebanon’s parliament, Nabih Berri, has called for another vote on Thursday.
The two main candidates, the Lebanese Forces party’s Samir Geagea, and Michel Aoun of the Free Patriotic Movement, have both rejected the idea of standing aside in favor of a third candidate with support across Lebanon’s political and sectarian divides.
Hezbollah’s veto of the nomination of Geagea for the presidency is seen as all but certain to rule him out, despite backing from the March 14 Alliance. Aoun—backed by Hezbollah and March 8—is still awaiting the outcome of his attempts to win the support of the leader of March 14’s biggest party, Saad Al-Hariri of the Future Movement.
Speaking in a radio interview on Sunday, one of Aoun’s followers in parliament, Ibrahim Kanaan, said: “It is possible to find a consensus president who is capable and representative, and Michel Aoun has proved his ability to work with all parties and reach understandings which will benefit the country, as evidenced in the issue of the [formation of the] government, for instance.”
Lebanon’s current cabinet was formed in February, after a 10-month deadlock in which the country was ruled by a caretaker government.
“The dialogue with the Future Movement has discussed launching the idea of institutions, facilitating security plans and finalizing appointments, and we are eager to bolster these efforts without losing independence, or turning the Future Movement into [Aoun’s party] and vice versa,” Kanaan added.
Samir Geagea, meanwhile, criticized the talks between Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement and Hariri’s Future Movement as “action which weakens the republic and compromises the top Christian position in the state [the presidency] by bringing in outside intervention, and will end up with a conciliatory president; one with no legitimacy and unable to make a decision or follow a political platform.”
The same day, Hezbollah maintained its opposition to Geagea—a fierce critic of the organization, and the only former warlord jailed for his role in Lebanese Civil War—indirectly criticizing his candidacy.
The deputy head of Hezbollah’s Executive Council, Sheikh Nabil Qaouk, said: “Insisting on a provocative candidate from March 14 is a decision [which leads] to a presidential vacuum . . . When they withdraw their provocative candidate they will open the door to a consensus president.”
One of the organization’s MPs, Nawwaf Al-Moussawi, said: “The presidential candidate must be able to unite the Lebanese and not be a reason for their division by his mere nomination, and a reason for damaging national unity.”
Dafer Nasser, secretary-general of the Progressive Socialist Party, headed by Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, told Asharq Al-Awsat that a third candidate was needed, and backed his party’s nomination of one of its MPs, Henri Helou, for the presidency.
“The recent phase has shown that there is no possibility of agreeing on a president from among the candidates presented by the two blocs, and this makes it imperative to reach a consensus,” he said.
Nasser criticized Aoun and Geagea for attacking the idea of a “consensus president,” saying “experience has shown us that major national issues are not resolved without understanding and consensus among all constituents is the easiest way.”
The MP insisted that Helou was “the best candidate to represent centrism, moderation and the spirit of harmony,” and played down the risk of failure to elect a new president before May 25, saying: “We cannot talk about a vacuum while there is a government in place which can assume the responsibilities of a president if one is not elected.”