Thursday, March 20, 2014

Is an Aoun presidency more realistic?

Some circles in March 14 are openly talking about the possibility that Michel Aoun, all 80 years of him, may be the next president of Lebanon after Michel Sleiman’s term ends in May.

While this may be speculation, that it is being discussed at all indicates how the political scene has changed since 2008, when Sleiman took office. So what would a serious Aoun presidency entail and how would it gain steam?

Earlier this year a rapprochement was organized between Saad Hariri and Aoun, thanks to the efforts of Gebran Bassil and Nader Hariri. While it is unlikely that any agreement was reached, those offering up theories of a deal suggest that it would go something like this: Aoun would have the support of the Future Movement in his presidential bid, while Hariri would return to Lebanon to be prime minister.

This is a bit too clear-cut to be convincing, but there is nevertheless a mood in Future ranks that Aoun as president would be very different than Aoun as presidential aspirant. Once he is in a position of authority, the argument goes, he would be less likely to cover for Hezbollah’s transgressions.

Sudden reversals are not new to March 14. In 2006-2007, Sleiman was widely viewed as Syria’s and Hezbollah’s candidate to replace Emile Lahoud. March 14 had put forward two candidates of its own, Nassib Lahoud and Boutros Harb, to block such an eventuality. Yet in November 2007 the mood in the Future Movement changed when it supported Sleiman, again based on a belief that most presidents will defend their institution and the state whatever their prior political positions.

Sleiman has doubtless lent credibility to that premise. But a successful Aoun candidacy poses a number of other questions as to who will support him and what may happen in the parliamentary elections come November.

The conventional wisdom is that Hezbollah, though an ally of Aoun, does not really want him as president. Rather, the party prefers to have a Maronite entirely beholden to it, which narrows the list to two front-runners: the Army commander Jean Kahwagi and the Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh.

The only problem with both individuals is that, given their status as grade-one civil servants, a constitutional amendment would be required to allow them to stand for election. And Hezbollah does not have the two-thirds parliamentary majority required to amend the Constitution.

The reality is that the party, whether it wants Aoun or not, would have little choice but to vote for him if he declared himself a candidate. The presidency cannot be seen in isolation from the parliamentary elections later this year, and Hezbollah cannot afford to forego Aounist Christian support in that contest.

What of Walid Jumblatt? His enthusiasm for an Aoun presidency is next to nil, but the Druze leader is a realist. If there is something vital to be gained by endorsing Aoun, then Jumblatt may go along with it. That is why he would seek guarantees that the parliamentary elections will be held on the basis of the 1960 election law. The law grants him political preeminence in Aley and the Chouf and is of existential importance to him.

Jumblatt’s support for Aoun would provide another advantage, this time to Hezbollah. With the Jumblatt bloc, Hezbollah and Aoun would hold a majority in parliament against what remains of March 14. Hezbollah does not want to depend on the Druze leader, but in the absence of alternatives it will probably accept a situation that grants Jumblatt a swing vote in Parliament.

Even if Jumblatt is unreliable, the Druze leader will almost certainly continue to side with the majority in order to remain politically relevant. That is doubly true in the event that Bashar Assad prevails in Syria, which would give Jumblatt much less latitude to turn against Hezbollah and its allies.

The 1960 law is equally of benefit to Aoun and Hezbollah. It gives them an unbeatable majority in several key districts where they are allied, and has repeatedly allowed Aoun to overcome his Christian rivals, above all the Lebanese Forces. Despite the Aounists’ public rejection of the 1960 law last year, if Aoun were to become president, he would do everything in his power to keep the law in place, as it would allow him to buttress his presidency with a significant Christian bloc in parliament.

Moreover, an Aoun presidency could be used to counteract the main Christian protest against the 1960 law: that it marginalizes Christians. The Aounists would argue that by reinforcing a President Aoun, the law would contradict that assertion.

A more realistic reading of the Aoun affair is that the Future Movement would not back Aoun’s candidacy, but that Hariri and Aoun may have agreed to something else. Constitutionally, a two-thirds quorum is required to hold a presidential election. Hariri might not persuade his parliamentarians to vote for Aoun, but he can oblige them to attend an election session, in that way ensuring there is a quorum allowing a vote to go ahead.

According to the Constitution, if a candidate cannot win a two-thirds majority in the first round of voting, a second round is held, in which candidates need only an absolute majority of 65 votes to win. Aoun, if he is backed by Hezbollah, which may then force Nabih Berri to go along, would have most of the votes. For him to win, however, Jumblatt would have to rally behind Aoun, which is plausible if the 1960 law is preserved.

A lot will happen between now and the May presidential election. Aoun may be a credible candidate, or he may not be. But one thing is increasingly obvious: Walid Jumblatt holds the balance of power in Parliament, and he will use the election to safeguard that weapon. His political survival may depend on it.

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