Almost five months have passed since President Michel Aoun’s term ended on 31 October 2022, and the Lebanese parliament failed to elect a president on multiple occasions, most recently on 19 January.
However, there have been some regional and internal shifts that could be a turning point in the crisis. On one hand, the Shiite duo of Hezbollah and the Amal movement have agreed on candidate Suleiman Frangieh. On the other hand, there are regional and international initiatives sponsored by France and Saudi Arabia to resolve the Lebanese issue in an effort to pressure the internal parties to elect the republic’s president. This is in addition to the Iranian-Saudi agreement, which was signed on 10 March, and its potential effects on the regional consensus on electing the president of Lebanon.
This paper examines the process of electing Lebanon’s president and the factors that have led to the current impasse.
How Lebanon’s President Is Elected
Lebanon has experienced three presidential voids throughout its history. The first occurred on 22 September 1988, when President Amine Gemayel’s term came to an end. This vacancy persisted for a year and 44 days before President Rene Moawad was elected in 1989. The second started when President Emile Lahoud’s term ended on 23 November 2007, and it lasted for about six months before General Michel Suleiman was elected on 25 May 2008, in accordance with a Doha agreement. The third vacuum, however, has lasted the longest in Lebanon’s history. It began on 25 May 2014, when Michel Suleiman’s two years and five months in office came to an end, and lasted until 31 October 2016, when Michel Aoun was elected president as part of a deal with the March 14 Alliance forces, who at the time had won the majority of seats in Parliament. Back then, Hezbollah was able to install Michel Aoun as president in exchange for the appointment of Saad Hariri, the leader of the Future Movement, as prime minister, and the Lebanese Forces (LF) party was able to secure a sizable portion of the Hariri administration.
According to Article 49 of the Lebanese constitution, “The President of the Republic shall be elected by secret ballot and by a two thirds majority of the Chamber of Deputies. After a first ballot, an absolute majority shall be sufficient. The President’s term is six years. He may not be re-elected until six years after the expiration of his last mandate. No one may be elected to the Presidency of the Republic unless he fulfills the conditions of eligibility for the Chamber of Deputies.”
However, the current parliament’s make-up meant that no political force in Lebanon had an absolute or balanced majority. As a result, no bloc could elect a candidate to the presidency without the support of the other blocs, such as Hezbollah and its allies, the opposition forces, and independents “forces of change”, all of whom can’t agree on a way out of the impasse. According to the LF party, the presidential candidate must be a sovereign, which means that he cannot support Hezbollah. For its part, Hezbollah disqualifies any candidate who does not back the resistance. Suleiman Frangieh is also rejected as a candidate by the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) because he is running against Gebran Bassil, and he also faces rejection from the Samir Geagea-led LF Party because the party views Frangiehas a continuation of the previous agreement due to its close ties to the Iranian-Syrian axis. Prime Minister Michel Moawad is being nominated by the opposition parties, but Hezbollah does not want to back him because it will not back the resistance.
Previous sessions’ failure to elect a president can be attributed to the disruption of the election process caused by the blocking third and session boycotts. The political forces are adamant about using the blocking third to obstruct the presidential election, which failed to elect the president for the eleventh time, the last of which was on 19 January, due to a lack of quorum in the second session. The Speaker of Parliament, Nabih Berri, departed without announcing when the legislature would reconvene to vote on the election of a president. In the first round of the most recent session, 111 of the 128 members of parliament cast ballots, with Michel Moawad receiving 34 of them while 37 parliamentarians cast blank ballots.
A candidate can win in the first round with 86 votes, but if the first round fails to produce a winner, subsequent rounds are held with a 65-vote majority. However, the political forces in Lebanon used to create what is known as a blocking third by about 43 parliamentarians abstaining from the electoral sessions, which impedes the process of electing the president. Suleiman Frangieh, the leader of the Marada Movement, and Michel Moawad, the opposition candidate and the son of the late president of the republic and member of the March 14 Alliance, who received the most votes during the presidential election sessions over the past few months, are two names that have been floated as potential candidates. Joseph Aoun, the current Commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces, is also in the running.
Some developments, both domestic and regional, have occurred over the past few days that could help Lebanon’s presidential election crisis be resolved. These developments include:
• External Efforts to Resolve Lebanon’s Crisis: Within the framework of Saudi-French coordination, several meetings have taken place recently to discuss ways to end the Lebanese crisis, with both countries’ stressing the importance of holding new elections for president and prime minister and developing a new reform agenda. During a five-way meeting in Paris on February 6, attended by the United States, France, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Qatar, Saudi Arabia stated that its vision is to select a reform-minded president capable of leading Lebanon out of its current crisis. On 21 September 2022, the leaders of France, the United States, and Saudi Arabia met again and issued a joint statement emphasizing the importance of holding presidential elections in Lebanon. The French plan calls for Suleiman Frangieh to become president and Nawaf Salam to become prime minister given his favorable Arab and international relations.
These meetings were an extension of other initiatives launched on the sidelines of the second Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership, which was held in Jordan on 20 December 2022. At the Baghdad Conference, French President Emmanuel Macron, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati consulted on the crisis. On the sidelines of the 2023 Arab Forum for Sustainable Development, a meeting was also held between Nabih Berri, Speaker of the Lebanese Parliament, and Ahmed Aboul Gheit, Secretary-General of the League of Arab States. After the meeting, Aboul Gheit stated, “Lebanon will soon have a new president; it is only a matter of time”.
Following the Iranian-Saudi agreement, additional meetings were held between the Speaker of the Lebanese Parliament, Nabih Berri, and the Saudi ambassador to Lebanon, Walid Bukhari, on 13 March, and between the Advisor to the Royal Court, Nizar Al-Aloula, and the Advisor to the French President for North African and Middle Eastern Affairs, Patrick Dorrell, on 18 March. On 10 March, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan paid a visit to Paris and met with France’s Catherine Colonna to coordinate efforts to resolve the Lebanese crisis. In addition, there has been discussion of holding a Lebanese dialogue conference in Egypt, Iraq, or Oman to help end the crisis and negotiate a deal along the lines of the Taif Agreement in 1989 and the Doha Agreement in 2008.
• Candidate Prospects: Suleiman Frangieh has been endorsed as a presidential candidate by both Hezbollah and the Amal movement. Frangieh, who is an ally of Hezbollah and the grandson of the late president of Lebanon, maintains cordial ties with the Syrian government. Hezbollah initially wavered between endorsing Suleiman Frangieh, the leader of the Marada Movement, as a candidate for the March 8 Alliance and endorsing Gebran Bassil, his ally and the head of the FPM. However, not all political forces in Lebanon endorsed Frangieh’s candidacy. The Christian majority, including the LF Party led by Samir Geagea, opposes Suleiman Frangieh’s candidacy because it does not want an ally for Hezbollah, and suggests electing a president who defends Lebanon’s interests and refuses to repeat the experience of former President Michel Aoun, especially given Frangieh’s regional alliances with Iran and Damascus. Frangieh’s chances as a compromise candidate may improve, however, in light of recent regional developments and efforts to reintegrate Syria into the Arab fold.
The Commander of the Lebanese Army, Joseph Aoun, on the other hand, has the support of Paris, Washington, and Saudi Arabia due to his accomplishments while in charge of the military institution, besides support from all internal parties, including Hezbollah, with the exception of Gebran Bassil (since Joseph Aoun refused, during Michel Aoun’s presidency, the army’s intervention to suppress the 2019 October protests). The opposition parties alternate between supporting Joseph Aoun and Michel Moawad. Aoun will still have to face the challenge of amending the constitution in order to be eligible to run for president because Article 49 of the constitution states that “it is also not possible to elect judges, Grade One civil servants, or their equivalents in all public institutions to the Presidency during their term or office or within two years following the date of their resignation and their effective cessation of service, or following retirement.”
Consequences of the Iran-Saudi Arabia Agreement: Normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran is likely to have a positive impact on the Lebanese file in general and the selection of the Lebanese president in particular, and will facilitate the selection of the president of the republic with external sponsorship in light of Tehran and Riyad’s agreement to limit Iranian interference in state affairs. Hezbollah, for its part, applauded the Saudi-Iranian agreement, saying it would open new horizons throughout the entire region and in Lebanon. This could pave the way for a resolution to the presidential election crisis, particularly because Lebanon serves as a focal point for both regional and global interests.
In conclusion, there is a motivating context for internal and external parties to reach a compromise candidate. This, however, is contingent upon the concessions made by these parties in order to potentially resolve the crisis, or the status quo in the event that Hezbollah and its allies choose to delay the resolution of the crisis. Given the current unrest in Iran and the pressure that sanctions have placed on the country, Tehran may be tempted to keep the card for choosing the president of Lebanon in reserve for use in negotiations with regional and international parties.