Research

On the verge of collapse: The urgency of electing Lebanon’s next president

  • Gina Bou Serhal
    Researcher
0 Views
National Policies

On the verge of collapse: The urgency of electing Lebanon’s next president


Lebanon’s election period is currently underway as the country’s MPs have set out to select a successor for Lebanon’s current President, Michel Aoun, whose mandate ends on October 31. As Lebanon inches closer towards becoming a failed state, the political ideology of President Aoun’s replacement will have a lasting impact on Lebanon for years to come, demonstrating the graveness of the upcoming election. While Parliament holds the constitutional responsibility to elect a new president every six years, speculation is mounting on whether MPs will opt for an independent, reform-minded opposition candidate who is untethered from Lebanon’s existing political elite or revert to an establishment candidate with a proven track record of successfully navigating the murky waters of Lebanese politics.

Two such possibilities, who lead two of Lebanon’s major Christian political parties, include Gebran Bassil, President of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), founded by his father-in-law and current Lebanese President Michel Aoun, and the Hezbollah-backed President of the Marada Movement, Suleiman Frangieh. While the Marada Movement holds a much smaller block in Parliament compared to the FPM (3 seats compared to the FMP’s 18), Bassil’s growing unpopularity – even among Christian Lebanese – could entice both independents and the Shiite blocs to throw their support behind Frangieh. Since the adoption of the Taif Agreement in 1989, the president of the Republic by convention should be a Maronite Christian, meaning any opposition candidate would face challenges in obtaining consensus in Parliament without the endorsement of the other major Christian blocs and their allies.

As per constitutional law, in the first parliamentary session to elect a president, a two-thirds majority is required[1] – equivalent to 86 out of the current 128 members of Parliament. If consensus is not reached in the first round, subsequent sessions require an absolute majority, equal to 65 votes.[2] MP Michel Moawad, an independent candidate and son of former slain president René Moawad, received 36 votes following Parliament’s first round of voting, indicating that Moawad has potential for gaining political traction. Out of the 36 votes, 18 came from the Lebanese Forces party led by Samir Geagea – one of the largest Christian groups in Parliament – further signaling how fragmented the current Maronite vote stands. Although Moawad’s family holds strong political ties to Washington and has long been vocal in his opposition to Hezbollah, there remains doubt on his electability as Hezbollah has vowed not to support any candidate who is either ‘dependent’ on the U.S. or one who plans to challenge Hezbollah’s resistance movement.[3]

One component of the ongoing parliamentary division stems from the fact that none of the current political blocs hold an absolute majority. This past September, the Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri was forced to suspend a parliamentary session due to the absence of quorum, as MPs walked out in protest due to disagreements over the 2022 budget. While the finalized budget was eventually agreed upon just before the start of October, Parliament is now left with only three months to prepare the 2023 budget as constitutional rules stipulate that the annual budget must be approved before the start of a new calendar year. With such an accumulation of unresolved legislation, the current discord leaves little hope that a consensus can be reached in the upcoming presidential election, which brings with it the potential for a disastrous political vacuum. If history is any guide, the election process to appoint President Aoun lasted nearly two and a half years and required 46 sessions in Parliament to reach a final consensus in 2016.[4]

The concern is that Lebanon is currently in the hands of a caretaker government as no new cabinet has yet been formed following the May parliamentary elections. Due to Lebanon’s sectarian power sharing system, the Prime Minister – currently Najib Mikati – must be in agreement with the President on the formation of a new government. If a cabinet is not formed prior to the election, it will be the first time since the Taif Agreement was adopted that a caretaker government assumes presidential powers, as Lebanon’s constitution states that in the event of a presidential vacancy, the government may seize power of the executive office.

However, debate remains on whether a caretaker government has the constitutional authority to assume presidential powers as such an event is unprecedented in Lebanon’s history. While Article 62 of the Constitution states that “should there be a vacancy in the Presidency for any reason whatsoever, the Council of Ministers shall exercise the authorities of the President by delegation,”[5] Aoun’s camp has nonetheless expressed skepticism on whether a caretaker cabinet has the legitimate authority to acquire presidential duties. President Aoun, who has continually affirmed his commitment to form a new government before his mandate ends, recently stated in an interview that the caretaker government is unable constitutionally to “assume the prerogatives of the president” as such a position is not only a “violation of the constitution but also exposes us to a real national crisis that can flare up,” adding that “if the government remains in its current state, which many people want, it means that we are facing a conspiracy.”[6] Without providing further detailed evidence, Aoun insisted there remains a “plot” against him in which “maneuvers have already begun.” Such an alarming statement sparked speculation that Aoun may be attempting to undermine a peaceful transition of power for his own political motivations.

Nonetheless, there remains intense international pressure for Lebanon to conduct timely elections in order to restore the confidence of its people. In a joint statement of support from the United States, France, and Saudi Arabia – Lebanon’s staunchest allies – the countries communicated the importance of electing a president “who can unite the Lebanese people and work with regional and international actors to overcome the current crisis.”[7] The statement also stressed the urgency on the formation of a new government that is “capable of implementing the structural and economic reforms urgently needed to address Lebanon’s political and economic crises,” referring in particular to the reforms requested by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to unlock financial aid that Lebanon desperately needs to rebuild its economy.[8] The IMF has long maintained that in order to overcome its fundamental problem of weak governance, Lebanon must increase transparency in its financial and energy sectors and develop a functional anti-corruption strategy to oversee state-owned enterprises.

Closer to home, Lebanon’s religious leadership – the de facto representatives of the country’s numerous sects represented in government, who yield extensive political leverage – also recently weighed in on the importance of the upcoming election. Lebanon’s Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdullatif Derian recently expressed the urgency of electing a candidate who is “wise, has a sense of national responsibility, integrity and ability to bring together all Lebanese,” while also signaling that Lebanon is moving closer towards becoming a “non-state” and that the international community along with Lebanon’s Arab neighbors “are ignoring it because of its poor political management on all levels.”[9]

Meanwhile during his Sunday homily, the head of the Maronite Church, Bechara al-Rai, expressed that “any attempt to obstruct the presidential elections is aimed at bringing down the republic on the one hand, and at minimizing the Christian role, particularly that of the Maronites, on the other.”[10] Although Lebanon’s religious leadership are not elected by the people they represent but are rather “products of and selected by elite institutions”[11] within the state, the confessional nature of Lebanon’s power-sharing system which institutionalizes religious sects allows such leaders to wield significant political authority over their broader religious communities. It has thus become commonplace for Lebanon’s religious leadership to optimize their platforms in times of crisis. For example, Christian and Muslim leaders offered support to the anti-government rallies during the 2019 protests[12] and lambasted the government following the 2020 Beirut Port blast. By leveraging their reach in local communities, Lebanon’s religious leadership only ‘symbolically’ absolve themselves from politics.

The issues

With the ratification of the 1989 Taif Agreement that brought an end to civil war in Lebanon, executive powers were reassigned from the president to the cabinet, which would then be presided over by the prime minister[13]  – a decision which received opposition from the Christian Maronites as it would weaken their position within the State. The agreement further eliminated presidential powers by “limit[ing] the role of the president to attending cabinet meetings without the right to vote” whereas prior to the war, the cabinet was unable to take decisions without presidential consent.[14] Constitutionally, however, the president maintains the power to appoint and dismiss his prime minster and cabinet, as well as “propose laws, enact ‘urgent’ legislation by decree, and veto bills,”[15] arming the president with significant political influence. Although the presidency remains a symbol of national unity, the solidarity between the president, the prime minister, and the speaker of parliament is critical for the passage of any legislation through parliament. Sustainable consensus between such officials is crucial to tackle the enormous challenges that lie ahead for whomever is elected to office.

The economic crisis

The most urgent task on hand for the incoming president will undoubtedly be Lebanon’s financial crisis, which has had a devastating impact on nearly every component of society. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Lebanon’s current economic crisis is a result of “years of unsustainable macroeconomic policies fueling large twin deficits (fiscal and external), support for an overvalued exchange rate and an oversized financial sector, combined with severe accountability and transparency problems and lack of structural reforms.”[16] Such deficiencies propelled the depreciation of the Lebanese lira, which lost nearly 95% of its value, triggered triple-digit inflation, and pushed unemployment rates to 29.6% in January 2022.[17]

In late 2019, local banks began self-imposing strict withdrawal limits for customers, specifically for transactions in USD, and placed restrictions on money transfers abroad, not only limiting access to people’s own money but also depriving depositors of their right to make personal financial decisions regarding their life savings. Following nearly three years of capital controls, frustration among the hardest hit reached a breaking point, prompting depositors to take matters into their own hands by holding up tellers at gunpoint demanding access to their funds. Such desperation inspired copycat behavior, with a series of robberies occurring this past August and September, sparking fears of further civil unrest.

This past April, Lebanese authorities along with the IMF reached a staff-level agreement to release $3 billion in economic relief to ease financial hardship, given that nearly 8 out of 10 citizens currently live below the poverty line. However, a formidable set of preconditions must be met in order to unlock the critical aid Lebanon desperately needs to rebuild its economy. IMF stipulations include restructuring the banking sector and public debt, strengthening anti-corruption laws, increasing transparency in state institutions, reforming private sector enterprises tied to Lebanon’s energy sector, and establishing a more credible exchange rate system. As ambitious as such requirements may be, only a complete and transparent financial overhaul can currently lead Lebanon out of the ongoing economic crisis.

The energy crisis

In March 2020, for the first time in its history, Lebanon defaulted on its foreign debt – a burden worth more than 170% of the country’s GDP.[18] At the same time, the country’s energy sector accounted for nearly 46% of Lebanon’s public debt.[19] Such an accumulation is the result of over-dependance on government subsidies, which since 1992 has accounted for nearly $40 billion in energy sector spending.[20]

One of the major subsets of Lebanon’s financial fallout has been the acceleration of its energy crisis, which has plunged the country into literal darkness. For decades, daily power cuts have become routine for most Lebanese homes due to the chronic dysfunction of Lebanon’s energy sector, which relies on imported, pollutant-heavy fuel to produce electricity. A notoriously inefficient system at best, Lebanon’s power plants have a production capacity of approximately 2,060MW and are unable to meet the demands of the local population that require 3,600MW,[21] resulting in rolling blackouts due to continual shortages. Additionally, Lebanon’s electrical grid is aging and weak, leaving it prone to electrical theft. It is estimated that nearly half of the energy supplied by the state-owned electricity company, Électricité du Liban (EDL), is stolen by plunderous electricians, who redirect power for a fee from communities with electricity to those suffering from outages.[22]

As Lebanon edges closer towards bankruptcy, blackouts have become much more frequent, some lasting up to 24 hours. Such irregularity has compelled citizens to organize their day around the sound of their appliances coming to life once the power kicks back on at home. From the logistics of how to keep food in the refrigerator cold, to charging battery powered lanterns and mobile phones, to planning how much laundry can be finished in an hour, the constant unreliability has forced citizens to play ‘beat the clock’ on a daily basis before the power shuts off again until the next day. Likewise, schools, hospitals, and local business all experience the same headache, relying on expensive diesel-powered back-up generators to offer some semblance of normalcy to everyday life. As a result of such state failure, the country-wide reliance on generators has in turn wreaked havoc on Lebanon’s air quality. According to researchers at the American University of Beirut, the “level of toxic emissions may have quadrupled since Lebanon’s financial crisis began because of increased reliance on generators.”[23]

In April 2022, protestors stormed and vandalized Lebanon’s Ministry of Energy and Water, ripping a portrait of President Aoun off the wall in response to the political dysfunction leading to the increase in frequency of power cuts. Any hope of resuscitating Lebanon’s energy sector will require strict adherence to the comprehensive economic reform program authorities agreed to with the IMF, including cost recovery plans and improving governance and oversight to avoid draining public resources.

Lebanon-Israel maritime border dispute

For over a decade, Lebanon and Israel had remained unsuccessful in indirect negotiations over their shared maritime boundary due to disputed natural gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean.  Yet, this October, after months of shuttle diplomacy led by US Special Envoy and Coordinator for International Energy Affairs Amos Hochstein, the two neighbors finally reached a historic deal demarcating their maritime border, specifically the disputed ‘Block 9’ region which includes the contested Qana gas field. As the two nations are technically considered “at war”, President Aoun has insisted that the deal would not constitute a working relationship between the two rival states. Instead, the French energy giant, TotalEnergies, who was awarded exploration rights in 2018, would “set up a mechanism whereby Total would pay Israel a portion of the royalties from any gas it produces in Qana.”[24]

While a 2012 seismic study estimated the possibility of nearly 25.4 trillion cubic feet of recoverable gas off the Lebanese shores,[25] the reality of reaping immediate benefits of commercial discoveries remains debatable to oil and gas experts. According to a study conducted by Richmond Energy Partners, large discovery projects in frontier provinces like Lebanon often result in a 7% success rate, requiring multiple drills conducted over the course of several years. In the event of a commercially viable discovery, revenues from such a find can take up to ten years to claim. Yet, such a time frame may be the least of Lebanon’s concerns. Over the summer, as negotiations carried on, the Israeli army intercepted three reconnaissance drones deployed by Hezbollah in the direction of the Karish offshore field, following the installation of an Israeli gas platform in the highly disputed area. While Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah repeatedly threatened beforehand to attack the offshore infrastructure if extraction started prior to the completion of negotiations, the scare tactic received criticism from the Lebanese government, with PM Najib Mikati stating that “any action taken outside the state’s responsibility and the diplomatic context in which the negotiations are happening is unacceptable and exposes Lebanon to unnecessary risks.”[26] In a recent cabinet meeting Israeli Prime Minister, Yair Lapid, expressed that Israel has “no opposition to an additional Lebanese gas field being developed,” as it would receive royalties from such discoveries, adding that “such a field would weaken Lebanese dependency on Iran, restrain Hezbollah and bring regional stability.”[27]

Such unilateral actions undertaken by Hezbollah run the risk of potential military miscalculation, which could lead to unnecessary conflict as tensions between the two neighbors historically run high. The current reality of Lebanon’s political instability, combined with potential security concerns at sea, may cause global energy firms to tread with caution at the prospect of taking on such a hefty investment, as upfront costs can run into billions of dollars. Furthermore, considering the current gas crisis in Europe, with Russia continually threatening to cut off energy supplies, the demand for natural gas is urgent. Even if Lebanon were to establish contracts for production as early as next year, assuming discovery efforts are successful, exports require massive infrastructure to transport and currently no pipelines run from the Middle East to Europe. Such a scenario leaves open the possibility of exporting liquid natural gas (LNG), shipped in specialized tankers, but this too comes with high transportation and infrastructure costs.

Nonetheless, while a sizable gas discovery would logically be seen as a prime solution to mitigate the shortcomings in local production for domestic use, what remains uncertain is whether producer companies like Total will agree to invest in offshore production with the possibility that EDL, which controls 90% of Lebanon’s electricity production, could be their sole buyer.[28] Too often, energy companies struggle to yield high returns for gas sold to local power plants and given that Lebanon is almost insolvent, a mismanaged state-owned company such as EDL may not appear as a reliable business partner under the current circumstances.

Country over party 

Lebanon’s economic crisis has infringed on every facet of life and normalcy in Lebanon. It has robbed the Lebanese of their livelihoods and all but extinguished any hope that change will materialize. Furthermore, this crisis was presided over by a majority of the politicians and elites who are currently running for president – which begs the question as to why citizens should expect this time to be any different. For this reason, the election of an independent, reform-minded candidate who is untethered from Lebanon’s corrupt, dysfunctional past is crucial to bring the country back from the brink of total collapse. Yet in reality, speculation is mounting that today’s stalemate may continue to linger for months on end – if not longer. Meanwhile, hope is already beginning to fade that an independent candidate would be able to obtain consensus from within Lebanon’s fractured sectarian system. The fact is Lebanon’s prominent foreign and regional stakeholders, including the US and Iran, must also weigh in on their preferred candidate. While selecting a president who can appease the vast political ideology of Lebanon’s foreign partners seems nearly impossible, rumblings on the ground in Beirut indicate that only one such candidate could possibly fit the bill, the Commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces Joseph Aoun, who is highly respected and regarded within the capitals of Washington, Riyadh, and Tehran. For now, only time will tell.

The immediate complexities Lebanon faces cannot be solved without the promise to prioritize country over party. If Lebanon’s MPs can mobilize and reach consensus to elect a new president in such a counterproductive environment, the same momentum must be used to target the multitude of economic and social grievances which have paralyzed Lebanon for years. Frankly, time has run out and the lights in Lebanon have turned off – literally. In a recent interview, IMF Director Kristalina Georgieva was seen imploring Lebanese authorities to rally together stating: “Hope never dies. We have a team on standby. We are ready anytime if there is a political will in this country…. Please help us to help you.”[29] Lebanon is running on borrowed time and desperately needs decisive action from the newly-elected anti-establishment MPs, who champion themselves as reformist candidates, to live up to their obligations.

References

[1] Presidency of the Republic of Lebanon, The Lebanese Constitution: Promulgated May 23, 1926 with Its Amendments 1995, http://bitly.ws/vy6b.

[2] Ghadir Hamadi, “Presidential Election: A Majority of MPs Will Attend Thursday Parliamentary Session,” L’Orient Today, September 28, 2022, http://bitly.ws/vy6m.

[3] Mohammad Salami, “Sayyed Nasrallah: New Lebanese President Can Never Defy Resistance, Iran Is Stronger Than Ever,” Al Manar, October 4, 2022, https://english.almanar.com.lb/1702560.

[4] Jamie Prentis, “Lebanon’s Divided Parliament Starts Process to Pick Next President,” The National, September 27, 2022, http://bitly.ws/vy5J.

[5] Presidency of the Republic of Lebanon, The Lebanese Constitution: Promulgated May 23, 1926 with Its Amendments 1995, http://bitly.ws/vy6b.

[6] “Aoun: 'I Will Leave Baabda If Nobody Means Any Ill Will’,” L’Orient Today, September 13, 2022, http://bitly.ws/vy5M.

[7] U.S. Department of State, “Joint Statement of Support for Lebanon from the United States, France, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” Press Release, September 21, 2022, http://bitly.ws/vy6x.

[8] Ibid.

[9] “Lebanon’s Grand Mufti Calls for Election of ‘Ethical’ President,” Asharq Al-Awsat, September 25, 2022, http://bitly.ws/vy6F.

[10] “Any Attempt to Obstruct the Presidential Election Aims to Bring Down the Republic, Rai Says,” L’Orient Today, September 25, 2022, http://bitly.ws/vy6I.

[11] Alexander D.M. Henley, “Religious Authority and Sectarianism in Lebanon,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace,  December 16, 2016, http://bitly.ws/vy6M.

[12] Bassem Mroue and Hassan Ammar, “Lebanon Protests Receive Backing from Religious Leaders,” Associated Press, October 23, 2019, http://bitly.ws/vy6R.

[13] Abbas Assi, Democracy in Lebanon: Political Parties and the Struggle for Power Since Syrian Withdrawal (London & New York: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd., London, 2016).

[14] Ibid.

[15] Thomas Collelo ed., Lebanon: A Country Study (Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress, 1987), http://bitly.ws/vy7A.

[16] International Monetary Fund (IMF), "IMF Reaches Staff-Level Agreement on Economic Policies with Lebanon for a Four-Year Extended Fund Facility,” Press Release, April 7, 2022, http://bitly.ws/vy7G.

[17] International Labour Organization (ILO), “Lebanon and the ILO Release Up-to-date Data on National Labour Market,” Press Release, May 12, 2022, http://bitly.ws/vy7R.

[18] Marc Jones, “Foreign Creditors Urge Lebanon to Begin Debt Restructuring Talks,” Reuters, September 21, 2021, http://bitly.ws/vy83.

[19] Marc Ayoub, Pamela Rizkallah, and Christina Abi Haidar, Unbundling Lebanon’s Electricity Sector, Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs - American University of Beirut, September 2021, http://bitly.ws/vy8A.

[20] Carol Ayat, Laury Haytayan, Jessica Obeid, and Marc Ayoub, Keeping the Lights On: A Short-Term Action Plan for Lebanon's Electricity Sector, Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS), Natural Resource Governance Institute (NRGI), and the AUB Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, September 2021, http://bitly.ws/vy8M.

[21] Jessica Obeid, “Lebanon: The 3-Decade Impossible Power Sector Reforms,” Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), March 13, 2020, http://bitly.ws/vy8Z.

[22] Tim Whewell, “Lebanon Electricity Crisis: Stealing Power to Survive,” BBC News, December 13, 2019, http://bitly.ws/vy95.

[23] Zeina Karam, “In Parts of Mideast, Power Generators Spew Toxic Fumes 24/7,” Associated Press, September 13, 2022, http://bitly.ws/vy9e.

[24] “Israel, TotalEnergies Hold Paris Talks on Gas Field off Lebanon, Source Says,” Reuters, October 3, 2022, http://bitly.ws/vy9j.

[25] Mehdi Haroun, “Lebanon’s First Steps in the Oil and Gas Industry,” King & Spalding, October 15, 2018, http://bitly.ws/vy9r.

[26] “Lebanon PM Chides Unofficial Moves in Israel Row after Hezbollah Sends Drones,” Reuters, July 4, 2022, http://bitly.ws/vy9x.

[27] Dan Williams, “Israel Upbeat on Draft Lebanese Demarcation Deal, Sees Gas Profit-sharing,” Reuters, October 2, 2022, http://bitly.ws/vy9z.

[28] Laury Haytayan and Aaron Sayne, Oil and Gas in Lebanon: Time to Rethink Expectations, Natural Resource Governance Institute, November 2021, http://bitly.ws/vy9I.

[29] Lara Habib Chamat, “Lara Habib Speaks to IMF Director Kristalina Georgieva on the Global Economic Outlook,” October 10, 2022, YouTube video, http://bitly.ws/vy9V.


: 25-October-2022

Reviews (0)


       


Related Research

©2023 Trends Research & Advisory, All Rights Reserved.

'