Frangieh AND Jihad Azour-1686212330310
Lebanese presidential elections: The main contenders -- Suleiman Frangieh (L) and Jihad Azour (R)

Lebanon was supposed to get a new president on June 14, 2023. That didn’t happen, however, as neither of the two candidates were able to secure the 65-vote majority required by constitution to elect a new president.

The first, Suleiman Frangieh, is backed by Hezbollah and Amal while his rival, Jihad Azour, is supported by an assortment of Christian parties including the Lebanese Forces (LF), the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), and the Lebanese Phalange.

Suleiman Frangieh got 51 votes; Jihad Azour, 59. Six votes were given to ex-interior minister Ziad Baroud, one for army commander Joseph Aoun, 1 was left blank, and 8 came out with the words “New Lebanon.”

Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri will now have to call for a new election and if those 16 voters decide to change course and go for Frangieh or Azour, then this would definitely break the impasse, given that Frangieh is 14 votes short of a majority while Azour needs only six to become president.

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By all accounts, everybody was surprised by how the last session concluded on June 14. The Christian parties supporting Azour were not really expecting him to win, fearing the might, arms, and deep pockets of Hezbollah would all play out in Frangieh’s favour.

For their part, Hezbollah and Amal were seemingly certain that Frangieh would win, counting on a handful of independent MPs, who ended up either not voting for him, or voting for Azour.

They were also expecting five members of the Free Patriotic Movement to defy their leadership and vote for Frangieh, but that also did not happen. Only one member of Gibran Bassil’s bloc ended up voting against Jihad Azour.

Frangieh backers were also counting on Druze leader Walid Jumblatt taking a last-minute decision by ordering his MPs to vote for Frangieh, which also did not happen. And on the other side of the spectrum, Bassil was expecting full support from Armenian MPs, but two of them defied and chose Frangieh over Azour.

A new parliament?

For now, all sides are eying the next session, which is yet to be scheduled, hoping to score a breakthrough. Neither Hezbollah is backing down on Frangieh, nor are Samir Gagegea and Gibran Bassil willing to abandon Azour. But if no clear majority is achieved at the next session, one suggestion making the rounds is to call for early parliamentary elections before the end of this year.

This would be music to the ears of both Hezbollah and Amal, who would continue to hold a combined bloc of 27 MPs in any parliament given their absolute control over the Lebanese Shiite community. The same cannot be said for Gibran Bassil, however, who currently commands a bloc of 17 MPs.

When the last elections took place in May 2022, Bassil was allied with Hezbollah, and it was thanks to their support that he won such an relatively large bloc.

That alliance is now history however, meaning that Bassil would find it painfully difficult to come out with anything close to 18 MPs in any future elections. Not only would Hezbollah not support him, this time, it would work against him.

What if Hariri returns?

The main point about the last parliamentary elections was that they were boycotted by former prime minister Saad Al Hariri, who had withdrawn from politics earlier in the year and called on his supporters neither to vote nor to nominate themselves for parliament. Back then, Hariri justified his move by accusing Hezbollah of hijacking Lebanese politics.

As a result of Hariri’s walkout, no powerful Sunni bloc emerged in the current parliament, giving the upper hand to Lebanese Shiites and Maronites.

Now with the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement picking up steam, Hariri might be motivated to return to politics, ahead of any future parliamentary election. His Future Movement had already announced that it was going to contest the municipality elections that were scheduled for next October (but got called off).

If he does return to parliament, one can only wonder what direction he would vote? Hariri used to be on good terms with Samir Gagegea — the main backer of Jihad Azour — but not anymore. He has an axe to grind with Azour’s second supporter, Gibran Bassil, blaming him for much of the woes of his last two years at the premiership.

And finally, Azour is protégé of ex-Prime Minister Fouad Al Siniora, a long-time friend of the Hariri family who has since parted ways and came out in defiance of Saad Al Hariri last year, trying to position himself for Sunni leadership in post-Hariri Lebanon. If back in Parliament, Hariri would probably never vote for a candidate affiliated with Fouad Al Siniora.

All of these remain possible scenarios — to be drowned or implemented — based on what comes out of the thirteenth round of presidential voting, when it happens.

— Sami Moubayed is a historian and former Carnegie scholar. He is also author of Under the Black Flag: At the frontier of the New Jihad.