Thursday, April 30, 2009

Michel Sleiman, our election wild card

As expectations swing one way or the other on the results of Lebanon's upcoming parliamentary elections in June, an important variable still remains unknown: Will President Michel Sleiman try to affect the outcome, and if so toward what purpose?

Publicly, the president has put on a front of irreproachable objectivity. He will not sponsor candidates, he has said many times, but if a parliamentary bloc emerges that places itself under the high patronage of Michel Sleiman, then he would certainly not reject it. However, that can only be part of the story, because the political future of the president, like his effectiveness after June, will be intimately tied in to the results of the elections. To put it bluntly, Sleiman will gain most if he holds the balance in Parliament between a March 14 bloc on the one side and the alliance between Hizbullah, Michel Aoun, and Nabih Berri on the other.

What about the other possible scenarios? If March 14 wins a decisive majority, let's say of 70 seats or more, the president will have less room to maneuver, not least on the formation of the government, than if he holds the balance (though that would not necessarily be the case if he has enough parliamentarians allowing him to form a two-thirds majority with March 14, which is improbable). He will remain, much like today, a symbol of the state that the majority will be able to use against the Hizbullah-led opposition. Still, Sleiman will have some wiggling room to play both sides against each other, with the shortcoming that he will not control enough parliamentary seats to always do so very effectively.

The worst option for the president would be a decisive victory by the Hizbullah-Aoun-Berri alliance. This would permit the three blocs to alone choose the prime minister and hold a majority in the Cabinet. It might also mean, since Berri is certain to be re-elected as speaker of Parliament, that Sleiman could find himself uncomfortably isolated, given the likely affinities between the speaker and the prime minister, even if the latter happens to be Najib Mikati. At the same time, Sleiman would have to face a resurgent Michel Aoun doubtless seeking to marginalize the president as paramount representative of the Maronite Christians.

More generally, Sleiman realizes he can only thrive in a political context where the state gains in authority. That's unlikely to happen, however, if Hizbullah and its partners come out of the elections stronger. The primary aim of the party in the event of a victory will be to set up and impose on the state a formal understanding protecting its own weapons, expanding its political, geographical and military autonomy, and placing the state at the service of the "resistance." That is precisely what Hizbullah's secretary general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, always planned as his "defense strategy." This process will involve, from the Lebanese side, undermining Resolution 1559, which calls for the disarmament of all militias in Lebanon and, through that, chipping away at Resolution 1701, the (imperfect) instrument of Hizbullah's neutralization in South Lebanon.

For Sleiman, such an upshot is potentially disastrous. He could find himself as the head of a state increasingly a pariah in the eyes of the United Nations, that many countries, particularly the United States, might take a distance from because of Hizbullah's dominant status in it, and that, resulting from this, drops back more firmly into the lap of Syria and Iran. And even if the consequences are not so dire, the president would almost certainly have to manage a country caught in the crosswinds of inter-Arab rivalry (since Arab reconciliation would not outlast Hizbullah's transforming Lebanon into a confrontation state), similar to what is happening today in the bitter dispute between Egypt and Hizbullah.

If a centrist bloc holds the balance in Parliament and the government, however, Sleiman would be in a good position to take several measures that enhance his political role. He would have more authority over the national dialogue sessions to find a consensual fig-leaf of a solution for Hizbullah's weapons, given that the party will refuse to disarm. The president would also have more latitude to develop the Lebanese relationship with Syria, knowing full well that the Saudi-Syrian rapprochement would compel any prime minister, even Saad Hariri, to ease tensions with Damascus. This would serve an additional advantage for Sleiman by marginalizing Aoun, who hopes to remain the main Christian interlocutor with the Syrian regime, as well as with Iran.

The president also has another idea to strengthen his Christian bona fides. A theme he has been sounding for some time now, albeit in an understated way, is that Lebanon needs to redefine the prerogatives of the president. However, unlike Aoun and those in March 14 who want to drop the Taif Accord altogether, since it reduced presidential powers, Sleiman sees his proposal as part and parcel of Taif's implementation. This is a sensible idea, but a perilous one. On the one side, the president will provoke a negative reaction from both the Sunni and Shiite communities, who will regard any effort to amend Taif as opening a Pandora's Box on their own communal prerogatives. And it is equally perilous in that many Christians have been so mobilized against Taif, that the thought of using the accord in the Maronites' favor may initially be resisted.

However, there is no doubt that deep down, Maronites, and Christians in general, would welcome a more effective president constitutionally, and would back Sleiman if he took the lead in bringing this about. More importantly, Taif urgently requires full implementation and amelioration to make it more effective a political instrument. The only thing is, most Lebanese communities will refuse to discuss a new social contract for as long as one community, the Shiites represented mainly by Hizbullah, holds the guns.

For all these reasons, keep an eye on Sleiman in the coming month. The president is playing his cards close to his chest, but more than virtually everybody else he cannot afford to allow the vote to turn against him. It's for that reason that the image of a neutral president might hide a more subtle strategy. Michel Sleiman has walked through enough minefields in the past four years to prove that subtlety is not his weak point.

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