Thursday, April 10, 2014

The presidential chess game has begun

Samir Geagea has declared his candidacy for the Lebanese presidential election, launching a thousand speculations. The Lebanese Forces leader has pushed his allies into a corner, forcing them to support him. He feels that, even though he may not win, the prospect of a Geagea victory remains far more credible than one by Michel Aoun. But how true is that?

Geagea’s calculation is roughly as follows. He reckons that, with March 14 and independent support, he would have well over 50 votes in his favor. With the backing of Walid Jumblatt’s bloc, the Lebanese Forces leader would be able to garner the 65 votes needed to win an election in a second round of voting. There are two problems with this assessment: Geagea’s estimation of the votes he already has seems quite optimistic and Walid Jumblatt’s backing is in now way guaranteed, on the contrary.

One principle on which Geagea seems to be basing his calculations is that Aoun cannot win a majority because his allies actually do not want him to win. That may be true, but Aoun appears to have taken it into consideration. Two weeks ago in an interview with Al-Mayadeen, the general announced that he would not stand against Geagea, since, as he put it, “I am in competition with nobody.”

That statement seemed both ridiculous and arrogant: ridiculous, since what is an election but a competition? And arrogant, because Aoun appeared to signal he would only stand if he alone was the candidate – presumably of national consent.

In reality, the general was more cunning than that. He knows that if he and Geagea run against each other, they will only cancel each other out, with neither securing a majority. This would facilitate the emergence of a compromise candidate. Aoun seeks to avoid such a scenario, and Geagea, who also knows the score, is hoping to build momentum for his candidacy before Aoun has had time to react effectively.

What are Aoun’s options? If he is not a candidate and sees momentum shifting toward Geagea, the general, with his allies, may boycott the election session and prevent a quorum. We would then have a situation that Aoun could exploit to present himself as the only person capable of breaking the ensuing deadlock.

However, a policy of blackmail would almost certainly alienate March 14, and the Future Movement in particular. In addition, it would be perceived as an effort by Hezbollah (since Hezbollah would be as much compelled to back Aoun as Future to endorse Geagea) to impose its man on Lebanon.

In the end, much depends on what Walid Jumblatt decides. Geagea may feel that the Druze leader is more inclined to lean toward him than toward Aoun, but that may be a miscalculation. Jumblatt prefers that neither man become president, but today he has a more pressing problem that he needs to resolve, namely to ensure that the parliamentary elections next November are held on the basis of the 1960 law – or any law that perpetuates his domination over the Aley and Shouf districts.

If Jumblatt loses his supremacy in these districts, he is politically finished. And he knows that Aoun is much more amenable to the 1960 law than Geagea, because it has twice given him large Christian majorities in Parliament. Geagea, in contrast, has no intention of allowing the 1960 law to stand, because it has marginalized the Lebanese Forces electorally. That is why last year he was so adamant in pushing for the so-called Orthodox proposal, which would have given the Lebanese Forces a much larger share of Christian seats in parliament.

Jumblatt’s strategy will be principally determined by the prospects for a return to the 1960 election law. Aoun doubtless knows this and will try to use it to get Jumblatt’s votes. But the Druze leader will not give in easily. His preference is for a more consensual figure, and a Maronite who will not challenge him in the mountains. That’s why Jumblatt may prefer to allow an election delay, perhaps through a March 8-Aoun boycott, to give time for a consensual figure to emerge, or, conversely, to drive up his price for backing a candidate meeting his conditions.

The irony is that Geagea’s candidacy may benefit Aoun. By turning the election into a choice between the Lebanese Forces leader and Aoun, Geagea may force those on the fence to take sides. And there are no assurances Geagea will win, as Jumblatt’s case illustrates. Geagea believes that several independents will vote for him; but it is also true that those who prefer a compromise could vote against him if offered no choice.

Aoun has alienated many people in the past nine years, especially in the Sunni community. But Geagea, despite his best efforts, has not been able to shake his past in the Lebanese Forces. Even among Sunnis, he should not overestimate his popularity. Geagea, like Aoun, is something of a headache to his Muslim allies: a candidate expected to disturb the atmosphere of conciliation that seems to be prevailing these days.

Aoun and Geagea have high expectations, maybe too high. Neither can be ruled out when it comes to the presidency, but in the coming weeks most of the non-Christian political forces will look for ways to circumvent them. If that fails, the onus will be on the centrists, Walid Jumblatt above all, to lean one way or the other. That’s when the real bargaining will begin.

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