Friday, April 4, 2014

Last one standing - The obstacle course of presidential candidacies

Barely two months before the presidential election in Lebanon, the country’s political alignments are still waiting for that mysterious voice that will descend from the heavens to tell them for whom to vote. Being in a pre-election phase, and assuming the election is actually held on schedule, everyone awaits the verdict of their regional sponsors.

Of the most-discussed candidates only Samir Geagea is officially a candidate until now. But everyone’s list of possibilities includes, in addition to Geagea, the parliamentarians Michel Aoun and Sleiman Franjieh, the head of the Kataeb, Amin Gemayel, as well as Jean Kahwaji, the army commander, and Riad Salameh, the Central Bank governor.

The conventional wisdom is that the front-line candidates are there to be shot down. Behind them are less prominent figures more likely to survive the initial carnage. Among those in the second tier is Jean Obeid, a former parliamentarian and minister, Robert Ghanem, another parliamentarian, to a lesser extent Boutros Harb, currently the telecom minister, as well as Maronites whose names get tossed out seemingly because they don’t bother anybody – for instance industrialist Naamat Frem and former minister Damianos Kattar.

To be on the candidate list does not mean very much. Any Maronite with some recognition can make it; the trick is ending up on the short list before the ascent to Baabda. So what are the criteria allowing access to the short list? Here are a few, though the inventory is hardly exhaustive.

First, the successful candidate must not face a veto from any of the major non-Christian political alignments. A successful president will need to be approved by both Hezbollah and the Future Movement, or at least not arouse their mistrust.

That would seem to rule out Geagea, Franjieh, Gemayel, and Harb, and quite possibly Aoun. Geagea and Franjieh in particular are not only beyond the pale for Hezbollah and Future, respectively, there is some question as to whether they are seen as viable candidates by their own allies.

Future, for example, still considers Geagea a close partner, but it is unwilling to navigate through the political turbulence that would ensue if it pushed for his candidacy. Nor does it feel that he would be best for the country at a time of deep polarization. Gemayel and Harb, though moderates, as March 14 figures are, similarly, not viewed as consensual.

Franjieh would pose similar problems for Hezbollah. The party embraces him, but to impose Franjieh on the Christians in general, and on Sunnis in particular, would be difficult when the party wants to calm sectarian tensions while it is locked in an open-ended campaign in Syria.

What About Michel Aoun? The general hasn’t declared his intentions yet, but is doing his best to sound like a national candidate. In remarks made on Wednesday to Al-Mayadeen, Aoun ruled out Kahwaji (and by extension Salameh), arguing that he needed a constitutional amendment to stand for office. In other words: Don’t expect my vote for an amendment.

Aoun said he would back Franjieh’s candidacy, which means nothing since Franjieh has said he would not run without Aoun’s consent, meaning he will not run against Aoun. And finally Aoun said he would not run against Geagea, since “I am in competition with nobody.” It’s unclear what Aoun will do now that Geagea is a candidate, but he has warned that if Future backs Geagea’s candidacy, this would have “negative repercussions.”

To win, Aoun would still need to persuade Future or Walid Jumblatt to vote for him. For now Jumblatt has shown no such inclination, and Hariri would need Saudi approval. He would also have to persuade the Sunni community of the benefits of electing Aoun, by no means an easy task given Aoun’s repeated provocations against Sunnis over the years.

And finally, Hariri would have to persuade his own parliamentary bloc to vote for Aoun. While he can do this, it may provoke a revolt in the ranks. The Future bloc’s leader, Fouad Siniora, cannot stomach a man who has often attacked him, and who covered for Hezbollah’s takeover of western Beirut when Siniora was prime minister. 

A second rule the candidates will face is that, aside from Saudi Arabia and Iran – the sponsors of the two major local actors – Syria must also approve any candidate. The assumption is that Syria, given its civil war, is out of the Lebanese game. Nothing could be more untrue. Hezbollah will not back anyone with whom the Syrians are unhappy.

Ironically, this may rule out Aoun. In recent days, a leading Baath parliamentarian has been openly denigrating Aoun before his colleagues, in what could be an effort to undermine the general’s candidacy. Hezbollah probably agrees. In the eyes of the party, Aoun ultimately remains a loose cannon.

Which brings us to a third rule that no one mentions, but that has been fundamental in elections since 1992: The successful candidate must be a relatively weak Christian.

This is a subcategory of the first condition, but is also rather different. The reality is that the non-Christian leaders are united in rejecting candidates with an independent base of support in a community they do not control. That doesn’t mean that Sunnis are happy with strong Shiite leaders, or vice versa. But they usually cannot veto such figures, whereas the presidential election allows them to do precisely that with Christians.

So who is the favorite today? Names are circulating, but bear in mind the conditions outlined here. The obstacle course is not an easy one for our presidential commandos. Nor for the rest of us who have to watch the spectacle for many more weeks.

No comments: