Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Lebanon’s 2014 Presidential Elections: When Local and Regional Power Arenas Collide

By Tamirace Fakhoury

The original version of the article was published in French and Spanish in Afkar/Ideas42

Lebanon’s presidential elections were supposed to be held by May 25, 2014, the day the six-year term of President Michel Sleiman came to an end.   However, the two contending political coalitions – the pro-Syrian March 8 and the anti-Syrian March 14 alliances – failed to reach an agreement over a candidate in the constitutional time frame.

In the first parliamentary session set to elect the president on  April 23, 2014, no candidate secured a two-thirds majority in the 128-member parliament. Lebanese Forces Leader Samir Gagea – the  candidate of the anti-Syrian March 14 Alliance and outspoken critic of Hezbollah’s military wing – won 48 voices of the required 86. Backed by Druze Leader Walid Jumblatt’s MPs, consensus candidate Henri Helou received 16 votes. MPs from the pro-Syrian March 8 Alliance submitted blank ballots. It is worth noting that their potential presidential candidate, Michel Aoun, leader of the Free Patriotic Current, has refrained from officially declaring his candidacy unless consensus would fall on his appointment. According to many observers, however, Aoun’s political past makes of him just as controversial as Gagea.

In subsequent sessions prior to the expiration of Sleiman’s mandate, parliament lacked a quorum due to the March 8 coalition’s boycott.  Employing their veto powers, MPs from the Hezbollah-led coalition sought to pressure March 14 to deliberate on a consensus candidate rather than to back Gagea. Disapproving of what its members perceive as an unrestrained and disruptive use of veto powers, the March 14 alliance has in return accused March 8 of undermining the electoral process.

In retrospect, the process leading up to Lebanon’s 2014 presidential elections has resembled an intransparent game of outbidding rather than a democratic electoral competition. It is yet one more critical juncture indicative of the dilemmas inherent to Lebanon’s sectarian-based politics. Why? How to interpret this episode in Lebanon’s turbulent history? And in a broader perspective, what does the Lebanese story tell us about the dilemmas of presidential elections in systems organized along polarized sectarian lines?

The Context of Lebanon’s Presidential Elections

In recent months, not only Beirut but also Damascus and Cairo have been preparing for for presidential elections. Whereas elections in Syria and Egypt hold deep symbolic meaning in the context of the uprisings that have rocked the two countries since 2011, Lebanon’s vote was not expected to alter much in the political constellation. Still, the 2014 presidential elections were not merely about choosing a representative for Lebanon’s Christian Maronite community but carried external and internal ramifications.

These ramifications can be summarized as follows:

First, the race to the presidency reflects the complexity and fluidity of inter-sectarian coalition building schemes that impact Lebanon’s power structure.

 Second, it reveals the uneasy relationship between Lebanon’s sectarian power sharing arrangement and democratic processes. The president is supposed to be selected as a result of competitive elections in the National Assembly. Still, in practice, the nature of Lebanon’s sectarian dealmaking requires that parliamentarians reach consensus over a candidate. This consensus depends not only on Lebanon’s domestic leaders but also on their foreign allies. In this context, the challenges of negotiation and dragging disputes thwart electoral sequencing.

Third, though the small republic did not witness an uprising in 2011, it has suffered from the schockwaves of surrounding transformations, in particular those emanating from the Syrian conflict. As such, Lebanon’s presidential elections give insight into the extent to which external powers maintain a grip over their local proxies in the country. They further unveil which powers have interest in Lebanon as a geopolitical extension of the Syrian crisis.

Lebanon’s Sectarian Politics

It is widely assumed that elections in majoritarian democracies best express popular will and ensure the stability of the social contract that ties citizens together. At the same time, both presidential and parliamentary elections continue to play a controversial role in post-war societies in which the competitive processes of democratization spell trouble for maintaining peace between various constituent groups.  This double-edged relationship between elections and democratic conflict management has long been examined in the scholarly literature. In theory, appropriately designed electoral processes help defuse tensions and address the roots of violence. For instance, they allow warring parties to integrate into the political process. In practice, both presidential and parliamentary elections have had a mixed legacy in post-war countries.  In some cases, they have been no more than farcical procedures. In others, they act as polarizing benchmarks.

Lebanon is a case in a point of the latter outcome. In a fragmented polity where fixed ethnic and religious groups are proportionally assigned political posts, elections – whether presidential or parliamentary – highlight various dilemmas: the issue of sectarian representation, the fragility of national cohesiveness, and the costs of external mediation to end deadlock.

Lebanon is a multi-sectarian society with eighteen recognized Christian and Muslim groups. Its political system is framed as an instance of power sharing or consociationalism organized along ethno-religious cleavages. From a theoretical perspective, in such a system, the cooperative behavior of political leaders ought to defuse cleavages inherent to the country’s divided political sociology. Leaders are to represent different social groups and seek to build overarching loyalties, contributing to the two-fold outcome of democracy and power-sharing.  In reality, however, Lebanon’s system has deviated far from this normative consociationalist model.

The system depends heavily on the executive coalition in which the president of the Republic is Maronite, the prime minister is Sunni and the speaker of parliament is Shia.  Since Lebanon’s independence in 1943, the role of the Maronite president in this arrangement has undergone key changes. The first 1943 republic celebrated the primacy of the Maronite president, granting him substantial prerogatives. Prior to the 1975-1990 civil war, for example, the president could appoint the prime minister and cabinet members. According to some schools of thought, this was an important trigger antagonizing other communal groups and leading in the end to the internecine war. In the wake of the conflict, the 1989 Ta’if accord sought to rectify this imbalance by reducing the power of the presidency. It ascribed more powers to the Sunni prime minister and the Shia speaker of parliament. It further envisioned a stronger council of ministers representative of various political and sectarian currents.

In so doing, however, the Ta’if accord reinforced the general feeling of Christian Ihbat or marginalization. Furthermore, substantial feuding among the three highest executive posts has undermined the ability of Lebanon’s power-sharing coalitions to act as effective policy arenas.

A Polarized Republic

Understanding the dilemmas underlying Lebanon’s 2014 presidential elections requires a multilevel analysis. Such an analysis ought to account for the sectarian distribution of power against the backdrop of Lebanon’s disgruntled communities. It further ought to examine the interactions between Lebanon and the region in the post-2011 setting.

Lebanon’s recovery from the civil war has been fraught with challenges: achieving inter-communal reconciliation, strengthening low levels of national cohesiveness, and ensuring that regional conflicts do not heighten  inter-sectarian tensions through the prism of local proxies.

The small polity went through a watershed juncture in 2005. Growing divisions simmering since 2000 over Syria’s  military and political hegemonic role in Lebanon crystallized into two competing visions of state-building. After the anti-constitutional mandate extension of former president Emile Lahoud, and the slaying of late prime minister Rafic Hariri in February 2005, anti-Syrian protests swept the country for two months. Under heavy international pressure, they culminated in the departure of Syrian troops. Since then, Lebanon has been divided into two overarching political coalitions.

Led by the Shiite “Party of God” Hezbollah, the pro-Syrian or the March 8 Coalition has sought to harmonize Lebanon’s political course with the Syrian regime. It has also defended Hezbollah’s military wing as a regional necessity. Further, it has condemned the politicization of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, set up to try the perpetrators behind  Hariri’s slaying.

In sharp contrast, the anti-Syrian or March 14 Coalition – led  by the Sunni-based Future movement – advocates that Lebanon distances its path from the Assad regime. It considers Hezbollah’s arsenal as a factor undermining state monopoly over legitimate violence.  Moreover, it has close ties with the West and with Saudi Arabia.

Amid this growing polarization since 2005, presidential and parliamentary elections have represented critical junctures. Two examples are worth highlighting.

With the end of pro-Syrian President Lahoud’s mandate in 2007, Lebanon plunged into a crisis that ended with the 2008 Doha agreement that enabled the election of President Michel Sleiman as consensus candidate after months of presidential vaccum. Externally-brokered, the agreement was credited for defusing – albeit temporarily -- heightened tensions between the March 8 and March 14 coalitions and for ending the impasse over the presidency.

In 2013, parliamentary elections were suspended as the spillovers of the Syrian crisis on Lebanese soil were thought to be too costly  for convening elections. Indeed, rifts between the two contending coalitions have only gained in importance since the crackdown of the Syrian regime on its uprising. At the heart of the matter lurks the controversial involvement of Hezbollah in Syria in defense of the Assad regime.

Against this backdrop, it is no wonder that the run up to the 2014 elections represented another polarizing moment. Its divisive implications derive from the nature of alignments the would-be president would strike within Lebanon’s power-sharing modicum. In this light, a set of contentious questions have arisen in the last months: Which vision of state-building will the president forge? Will he be closer to the March 14 alliance or a “friend of the resistance”? Will he to bridge the rift between both coalitions? If yes, how much room to maneuver will he have? And where will the president position Lebanon’s Christian communities within the broader Sunni-Shia struggle? If the final choice rests on a compromise candidate,  will it mean that the highest Christian executive post will be reduced to a mere figurehead?

As consensus building has been thwarted by Lebanon’s polarizing politics,  external mediation has become inescapable. Indeed, though powers such as France, the USA and Saudia Arabia called in April and May 2014 for a “made in Lebanon” presidency, expectations were high that behind the scenes negotiations with external powers would end the impasse. During that period, many speculated whether a Saudi-Iranian rapprochement might defuse inter-Lebanese tensions over the Maronite post, bringing about an electoral breakthrough.

What About Public Arenas in an Elite-dominated Political System?

While the geo-strategic dimensions of Lebanon’s 2014 presidency were center stage, little attention was devoted to the role and perceptions of the Lebanese public.

In the post-war period, analysts have often deplored the fact that popular will does not possess  sufficient deliberative arenas to make its voice (s) heard amid elite-driven power struggles.  Indeed, in the run up to the 2014 elections, criticism has raged in public and civic spheres as to the extent to which elite negotiations reflect Lebanon’s popular opinion.  Civil society groups, for instance, have specifically targeted the lack of transparency over presidents’ eligibility criteria . The latter are thought to be neglected in favour of consensus criteria dictated by pragmatic considerations regarding Lebanon’s security and geopolitical dilemmas. These consensus criteria could be captured through the following equation: The president should not be defiant of Hezbollah’s arsenal and of the Syrian regime, but should at the same time seek to safeguard Lebanon’s dissociation policy from the Syrian crisis. These constraints disqualify, for example, Christian hardliners who do not want operate within the confines of this framework.

In my conversations with Lebanese citizens, many deplored that criteria for electing a president do not hinge on the latter’s programme regarding reinvigorating frail institutions and remedying socio-economic disparities.  Many further questioned elections as useful procedural processes, since secretive consultations in fact dictate electoral outcomes.

It emerges further from interviews I have conducted that public opinion is divided over the significance of Lebanon’s 2014 presidency. One camp questions the election of an accommodating and neutral Christian figure, and perceives such a move as a further blow to the Christian community that has seen  its post-war role overshadowed by the Sunni-Shia divide. In stark contrast, others warn against electing a confrontational hardliner as Lebanon is navigating through domestic and regional turmoil.

The Dilemmas of Presidential Elections in Post-War Lebanon

The impasse over Lebanon’s presidential election has once again put forward the necessity of reforming an ailing system which puts to the forefront sectarian loyalties and alliances at the expense of national projects. In such a divided polity, sectarian leaders  seek the validation of external power-brokers to buttress their leadership.  They further resort to external brokerage as an arbitration mechanism in stalling deliberations.

Indeed, to some analysts, the presidential power vacuum reflects Lebanon’s waiting mode in light of Syria’s presidential elections in June. To others, the domestic situation is reflective of regional power struggles in a post-2011 Arab context. In this view, states such as Iran and Russia would favour a consensus candidate in Lebanon rather than a hardliner who would oppose Hezbollah’s support of the Assad regime.

Against this backdrop, what role can international players such as the European Union (EU) play in boosting Lebanon’s future presidential elections as avenues for reform, representativeness and institutionalization?

Through the European Neighbourhood Policy and the EU External Action Service, EU states could provide incentives for Lebanese politicians to manufacture home-made presidential elections. They could further encourage inter-regional consultative processes that would include both state representatives and non-state actors. Such consultative processes could (i) deliberate on road maps to lessen Lebanon’s dependency on external power brokers and (ii) produce research-grounded reflections on how to consolidate the primacy of institutions and cross-communal loyalties over clientelistic ties and exclusionary political projects.

 Tamirace Fakhoury is assistant professor of political science at the Lebanese American University and visiting faculty in Summer Sessions at UC Berkeley.