BEIRUT: Already reeling from three years of economic meltdown, Lebanon faces the prospect of its multi-faceted crisis deepening further when President Michel Aoun’s mandate expires on Monday.
The deadline looms as the country is headed by a caretaker administration, since key parties have been unable to agree on a proper government to replace one whose mandate expired in May.
Parliament has held four rounds of voting since last month, with no candidate garnering enough support from parties to succeed Aoun, prompting fears of a protracted power vacuum.
It’s something that Lebanon - whose currency has effectively lost more than 90 per cent of its dollar value in the last three years and whose citizens have seen their bank deposits evaporate - can ill-afford.
Basic political cooperation is required to unlock billions of dollars in rescue funds from wary donors.
“The most likely scenario after the end of Aoun’s mandate is a protracted presidential vacuum until Lebanon’s major political parties agree on a candidate,” said Lina Khatib, head of the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House.
Lawmaker Michel Moawad won the most votes in parliament, garnering Monday the support of 39 lawmakers opposed to the powerful Shiite organisation Hezbollah in Lebanon’s 128-seat parliament.
But that was still far from securing the 86 votes needed to win the presidency.
Other frontrunners include former minister and parliamentarian Sleiman Frangieh, the scion of a political dynasty who is close to Hezbollah and a personal friend of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad.
“Hezbollah will insist on imposing a candidate,” Khatib said.
The Iran-backed group has not officially endorsed a candidate but Frangieh was always considered one of the group’s preferred choices - though its Christian ally, Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), will not back him.
Gebran Bassil, Aoun’s son-in-law who heads the FPM, is also vying for the presidency.
Moawad’s supporters in parliament accused Hezbollah and its allies of obstructing the vote for weeks to negotiate with other blocs.
They had adopted a similar tactic in the last election by boycotting the vote in parliament - a move that left Lebanon without a president for more than two years, until Aoun’s 2016 win.
Elias Hankash, a lawmaker from the Kataeb Party who supports Moawad, accused Hezbollah and its allies of “systematic disruption”.
Moawad has good ties with Washington and has repeatedly asked for the powerful Hezbollah - the only faction to keep its weapons after the end of Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war - to disarm.
Under Lebanon’s longstanding confessional power-sharing system, the presidency is reserved for a Maronite Christian.
In Lebanon’s divided parliament, no bloc holds a clear majority, which means the main players are forced to agree on a candidate.
Hezbollah is betting on a power vacuum to tire out their opponents and obtain an “agreement by coercion”, Hankash said.
In 2019, three years into Aoun’s mandate, a severe financial meltdown plunged the country into one of the world’s worst economic crises in recent history according to the World Bank.
Lebanon has yet to enact most reforms needed to access billions of dollars in loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
It’s a far cry from the optimism of a mass protest movement born three years ago that railed against sectarianism and the entrenched political elite, but whose momentum slowed when the coronavirus pandemic struck.
In August 2020, Lebanon was thrown into further despair when Beirut was ravaged by one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions worldwide, triggered by haphazardly stored ammonium nitrate.
“A political crisis is the last thing that Lebanese need right now,” a Western diplomatic source told AFP.
“Lebanon needs leadership to push through with the reforms needed to implement the IMF deal,” the source said.
“Most embassies are worried about the very real possibility that Lebanon won’t have a president after Aoun’s term expires.”
For political analyst Sami Nader, should political parties fail to agree on a candidate, the situation “may call for pressure or external intervention” to resolve their dispute.
Meet the potential candidates
BEIRUT: With two days remaining in Lebanese President Michel Aoun’s term, lawmakers are no closer to consensus on his successor, amid fears of protracted horse-trading amongst the entrenched elite.
Here is a list of candidates who have either announced they were running for president or emerged as potential frontrunners.
Sleiman Frangieh: Sleiman Frangieh, 57, is a former lawmaker and minister close to the powerful Iran-backed Hezbollah group and a personal friend of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad.
He heads the Christian Marada movement and, like many of Lebanon’s prominent political figures, hails from a storied dynasty.
His grandfather and namesake was president when Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war broke out.
In 1978, his father, politician Tony Frangieh, along with his mother and sister, were murdered by rival Christian fighters while he was elsewhere in the country.
He has not officially announced his candidacy, but he told local press he was interested in the position.
His name had been touted for the presidency many times before but he never secured enough support to win.
A source close to Hezbollah told AFP the group backed his candidacy, although their Christian ally the Free Patriotic Movement would not endorse him.
Michel Moawad: Michel Moawad, 50, has close ties to Washington and hails from Zgharta, Frangieh’s hometown.
His father Rene Moawad was killed 17 days after being elected president in 1989 and his mother Nayla Moawad is a former minister and lawmaker.
He snatched the support of lawmakers opposed to Hezbollah, gathering 39 votes out of 128 when parliament convened for the fourth time on Monday to try to elect a new president.
He has repeatedly demanded that Hezbollah disarm.
But without the support of the Shiite group and its allies, Moawad’s chances of becoming president are slim.
Gebran Bassil: Aoun’s son-in-law Gebran Bassil, 52, has been vying for the presidency for years.
He heads Aoun’s Christian Free Patriotic Movement and is widely seen as his political heir, with many referring to him as Lebanon’s “shadow president”.
In 2019, insults against Bassil became a catchcry of mass antigovernment protests as he came to represent, for many Lebanese, the epitome of the elite’s corruption and nepotism.
His chances of securing the seat have moreover dwindled since he was sanctioned by the US in 2020 for corruption.
He has insisted in speeches and interviews that unnamed rivals have “prevented” him from carrying out reforms.
Although he heads one of the biggest Christian parliamentary blocs and is a close ally of Hezbollah, the group has not announced it would endorse him.
The lawmaker headed key ministries, including energy and foreign affairs, in successive governments between 2008 and 2020.
Joseph Aoun: Army chief Joseph Aoun, 58, is on good terms with all sides of the political spectrum, although Hezbollah has criticised him for his close ties to Washington.
Naming him would require a constitutional amendment because of his position.
The commander, who bears no relation to the incumbent, is widely seen as a compromise candidate that lawmakers could elect if they fail to reach a consensus on their preferred choice.
Should he become president, Aoun would be the fourth former army commander to lead the country since the end of the civil war.
Others: Others have emerged as potential candidates, but their chances of winning are slim to none.
These include former diplomat Tracy Chamoun - granddaughter of late president Camille Chamoun - who announced she was running for office.
Her father Dany Chamoun was assassinated in 1990, a murder blamed on rival Christian leader Samir Geagea.
Former foreign minister Nassif Hitti, business tycoon Selim Edde and university professor Issam Khalifeh have also been floated as potential candidates in the local press or in parliament.