Friday, November 15, 2013

After Suleiman, a deluge of maneuvers

It is rare for the Lebanese to be on time for anything, but give them an election and they will arrive before deadline. The presidential election may be nearly six months away, but already the different political forces are getting into position, their aim to ensure that whoever succeeds President Michel Suleiman will advance, or at least not harm, their political agenda.

In the tortuous logic of Lebanese politics, Suleiman’s repeated assertions that he does not want an extension seems, in fact, virtual confirmation that he would accept one if asked – unlike Fouad Chehab, say. The rather unkind comment that Suleiman aspires to be an excellent former president doesn’t square with the fact that this most inconspicuous of men has been propelled from pinnacle to pinnacle in a county that has frustrated more talented men, and he almost certainly wants the ride to continue.

But the different political forces are already thinking of alternatives. It has been clear for some months that Hezbollah has had enough of Suleiman. The president has taken positions opposed to those of the party, and so Hezbollah wants to bring in someone more willing to toe its line and who owes the party for bringing him to power.

That someone, by most accounts, is Jean Kahwaji, the army commander. The recent extension of Kahwaji’s term as commander, though justified by the need to avoid a vacuum at the head of the army, was also more than that: a way of ensuring that he remained in a position of influence to facilitate his elevation to the presidency.

Hezbollah believes that it can win a majority in parliament when elections come around next year, because it has every intention of pushing through a favorable election law. The train wreck that took place a few months ago within March 14 when it came to agreeing a consensual law shows that Hezbollah is probably right in anticipating that it can impose the law that it wants.

If successful, the party could win a majority in parliament, with its allies, thereby naming the speaker; by then it might have brought in a friendly president; and its parliamentary majority would allow it to appoint a friendly prime minister, in that way giving Hezbollah control over the three branches of government.

There is one fly in the ointment of this scheme: Michel Aoun. Nearing 80 and in erratic health, Aoun still wants desperately to be president, but knows that Hezbollah is not on board with this. That is why the general took positions critical of the party some months ago, even if he has toned down his rhetoric lately.

But Aoun is not yet finished. His parliamentarians met with Future parliamentarians last week, a move that reportedly alarmed several politicians and political groups, including Suleiman and Hezbollah. Future, sensing Hezbollah’s intentions, is looking to play on the rift that the presidential election may cause between Aoun and Hezbollah.

One Future parliamentarian is even speaking of a consensus around a new troika, whereby the bloc would support an Aoun presidency, Saad Hariri would return as prime minister, and Nabih Berri would remain as speaker. Indeed, some see the Future-Change and Reform meeting as a potential step in this direction, even if the meeting was a preliminary one and most probably a trial balloon by both sides.

On the other hand, the fact that it took place suggests that Future’s attitude toward Aoun, whether for tactical reasons or otherwise, is changing. Then again if Future ever decides to endorse Aoun, it will find quite a few people opposed to this, including allies in March 14.

It is highly unlikely that Samir Geagea would go along with such a choice. He backed the destructive Orthodox proposal in order to avoid a new electoral thrashing of the Lebanese Forces at the hands of the Aounists, which the 1960 law would have brought about. To expect him to back an Aoun presidency now, particularly when Geagea himself has shown signs of having presidential ambitions, seems illusory.

Then there is Walid Jumblatt. He has never been particularly comfortable with a popular Maronite as president, as this threatens his own hold over the Christians in the Chouf and Aley districts. The Jumblatts have sought to play the role of presidential kingmaker, but an Aoun presidency would decidedly not be made in Mukhtara.

And then there is Hezbollah, with Jean Kahwaji in its scabbard. This trio would make for an interesting coalition, dead set on sinking Aoun’s chances – not to mention Suleiman, even if his influence over the succession process is limited. Nevertheless, the president does have the capacity to complicate Aoun’s presidential project.

One element that will enter into the debate is that a Kahwaji presidency would imply that no Maronite other than the army commander can seriously aspire to become head of state. Many in the political class do not want to send such a message. Kahwaji could suffer and it is difficult to imagine that Geagea and Jumblatt, as hostile as they are to Aoun, would be indifferent to this.

We’re still months ahead of agreement over a new president, if agreement there is. But sometimes prescience serves a useful purpose. With Lebanon unable to afford a political vacuum in the presidency, and the absence of a government not likely to be settled before May, at least some are looking for a way out of the woods.

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