Beirut: Fond of seeking entries in the Guinness World Records over the largest plates of hummus or tabbouleh, two favourite local dishes that are “100 per cent Lebanese,” politicians in this country are on the verge of establishing a new record — their inability to elect a new head-of-state.

Regrettably, few anticipate a resolution over the short-term as two leading coalitions — the pro-Iranian March 8 and pro-Arab March 14 — are deadlocked over their putative candidates. A full year into the vacancy, citizens remain aghast at worsening conditions, unable to alter or even influence their elites.

Except for their first gathering on April 23, 2014 that failed to elect a successor to President Michel Sulaiman by the required two-thirds majority, the Lebanese Parliament, which is composed of 128 deputies, scrubbed 25 successive sessions for lack of a quorum. Simply stated, the country’s politicians could not agree on the very identity of the next president who, it was worth repeating, only required a simple majority of 65 votes after the second ballot. Sulaiman’s term ended on May 25, 2014 and while the Lebanese became habituated to the vacancy, what functioned was haphazard, amid increasing turmoil on several fronts, topped by a huge refugee crisis, bubbling sectarian tensions, and regular clashes along the border with Syria especially in the Northern Arsal region. Resigned to their fates, the Lebanese pretended that their country functioned, and although life continued, it was neither felicitous nor risk-free.

Leading candidates

The two leading candidates for president are old-time rivals, 63-year-old Samir Geagea, the head of the Lebanese Forces and the presumed March 14 alliance designee, and 81-year-old Free Patriotic Movement leader General Michel Aoun, of the March 8 alliance that is led by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah. Importantly, the two men have been adversaries since Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war, with Geagea sentenced to death for war crimes (but pardoned in full by parliament in 2005 because the trial and sentencing was done under Syrian tutelage that was known for its irregularities), and Aoun fleeing to the French Embassy in 1989 before he was whisked to Paris, at a time when he opposed Damascus. Aoun made a volte-face after his return to Beirut in 2005 and is now fully in the Syrian camp, believing that he can accede to the presidency with the Baath regime’s blessings.

To be sure, regional conflicts, especially the raging civil war in Syria, literally ensure that no presidential elections can be held in Lebanon anytime soon. Indeed, most observers believed that Beirut was caught in the regional whirlwinds that now pit Iran against Saudi Arabia, whose priorities are elsewhere. Both March 8 and March 14 backers are waging direct and/or proxy wars in Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere, which means that the election of a president for Lebanon remained low on the list of priorities.

What complicated matters further were personal considerations, allegedly advanced by Aoun, who was engaged in behind the scenes negotiations for a deal that would guarantee the appointment of his son-in-law, Commando Regiment chief Brig General Chamel Roukoz, as army chief. According to widespread rumours, Aoun would only withdraw his candidacy from the presidential run if Roukoz ascended to the top military position, something that Sa’ad Hariri, the Future Movement, ruled out. Hariri supposedly informed Aoun that the appointment of a new army commander could not occur ahead of the election of a new head of state. Interestingly, the daily Al Nahar had reported that Hariri did not object to the Roukoz appointment, though he stressed that ending the presidential vacuum was a must before any other considerations. In the event, these machinations illustrated that sensitive military posts that required the utmost attention were neglected by political elites, unable to prioritise and serve the country’s national security interests.

The year-long delay that Beirut lived through was not uncommon in contemporary Lebanese history as the presidency was left vacant for months on end during the 1975-1990 civil war. More recently, a seven-month vacancy occurred in 2008, and only ended after Shaikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani of Qatar intervened to literally buy a term’s (six-years) worth of peace. Few believed that a similar arrangement was possible today even if local politicians salivated at such an option. Simply stated, sharp sectarian fault lines between Lebanon’s Sunni and Shiite populations, along with an equally troubling division among the country’s Christians, prevented the adoption of compromises. Comically, parliament’s sole accomplishment during the past year was to hold a single vote to extend its own mandate, with no prospects to fulfil a constitutional duty and elect a president. All to set a new Guinness World Record.