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Quick Thoughts: Maya Mikdashi on the Lebanese Presidential Elections

[Lebanese parliament building. Image by rabiem22 via Flickr] [Lebanese parliament building. Image by rabiem22 via Flickr]

[On 31 October 2016, Michel Aoun was elected to the Lebanese presidency by a parliamentary majority. Aoun’s election ended a period of two years during which Lebanon functioned without a head of state on account of the inability of the country’s rival political coalitions to agree on a candidate. Jadaliyya Co-Editor Maya Mikdashi, Assistant Professor of Gender Studies and Middle East Studies at Rutgers University, elaborates on this crisis, its resolution, and the broader implications for the Lebanese political system]

Jadaliyya (J): What is the nature of political representation in Lebanon and the current status of its key institutions?

Maya Mikdashi (MM): Lebanon’s three highest political offices are those of president, prime minister, and speaker of parliament, representing the three main institutions of government. However, Lebanese citizens elect the occupants of only one of those institutions: parliament. Members of parliament, which constitutionally serve a four-year term, in turn elect both their speaker (for a four-year term) and the president of the republic (for a six-year term). The president, in close consultation with parliament, in turn selects the prime minister, who forms the cabinet. Thus Lebanese citizens do not elect the occupants of the three main offices of state.

Since independence, the informal agreement between political elites known as the “National Pact” established that the president of the republic must be Maronite Christian, the prime minister Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of parliament Shi’i Muslim. As a carry-over from the French Mandate period, during parliamentary elections citizens cast their votes in the districts they are listed as having “originated from” in national registries, a designation that is inherited patrilineally, rather than where they reside. Importantly, when women get married they are automatically moved in state registries to the districts that their husbands “originated from.” Faced with competing multi-sectarian lists of candidates, voters can choose to vote for an entire list, across lists, or write in candidates.

In the first decades after independence, Lebanon’s president wielded significantly more prerogatives and powers than either the prime minister or speaker of parliament. However, the Ta’if Accords—the formal agreement that ended the Lebanese Civil War of 1975-1990—and subsequent constitutional amendments transferred significant executive powers from the presidency to the Council of Ministers (i.e. the cabinet, presided over by the prime minister). These reforms also significantly upgraded the role of parliament and its speaker. The resultant system came to be known as Troika politics, whereby each of the three offices could be used to check the other two. The post-war settlement also shifted the Christian-Muslim ratio of parliamentary seats from 6:5 to 1:1. Taking into account confessional divisions within each religious group, this in effect means that Maronite Christians have the largest number of seats relative to the size of their sect.

Since 2013, the parliamentary elections scheduled for 2014 have been twice postponed, the only time this has happened in Lebanese history with the exception of the civil war period. The stated reason for these delays is parliament’s inability to agree on an electoral law, which is typically issued before each election to designate electoral and representation procedures. The controversies over this law include gerrymandering, lowering the voting age to 18 from 21, and the ability of Lebanese citizens abroad to vote. Instead of reaching consensus and legislating (which is, after all, their job), parliament voted to extend its own term until conditions were “favorable” for an election. The election is currently scheduled to take place in 2017. 

Thus, Lebanon’s citizens last voted for any form of national political representation in June 2009, nearly eight years ago. By the time a new parliament is in place (if elections are indeed held in 2017), it will be nearly ten years. It should be obvious by now that no good comes from political disenfranchisement, which is exactly what has been happening in Lebanon. It should be underlined that the election of Michel Aoun to the presidency was conducted by a parliament whose electoral mandate expired more than two years ago—a violation of the electoral process as laid out in the Ta’if Accords.  Furthermore, the recent election of a president came a full two years after the previous president’s term ended in 2014.

(J): Why was the presidency vacant for so long?

(MM): The stated reason for the two-year void in the presidency following the end of President Michel Suleiman’s term in 2014 was the absence of a credible consensus candidate to succeed him. As mentioned above, due to the structure of the Lebanese political system, it is members of parliament rather than Lebanon’s citizens who decide whether or not there is a “credible” candidate. In this most recent vote, Michel Aoun was the sole candidate nominated by parliament. There were no alternative candidates and thus no competitive ballot.  Aoun’s appointment followed years of lobbying in his favor, and the eventual support for his candidacy from his one-time rivals for the position—including Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea.  

The election of Michel Aoun to the presidency reflects several key trends in regional and Lebanese politics:

The continuing détente between the main rival political coalitions: March 14 and March 8 (the former is dominated by the Hariri-led Future Movement and Geagea-led Lebanese Forces, the latter by Hizballah and the Aoun-led Free Patriotic Movement).

The fragmentation of the March 14 coalition and the continuing war in Syria were major factors in precipitating this détente. Now that President Aoun has asked Saad al-Hariri to form and lead a cabinet, which many claim was a precondition for the March 14 coalition’s support of Aoun’s bid, the polarization between these two camps that has gripped the country since 2006, will ameliorate. It must be emphasized that one area of consensus among the political class is to further securitize management of Lebanon’s Palestinian and Syrian refugees—in addition to Sudanese and Iraqi refugees. Currently there is one refugee for every three resident citizens in Lebanon, and the only response the government has had toward these refugee populations (in particular Syrian refugees) is more security, exploitation, and violence. Additionally, government officials (including Aoun) regularly threaten Syrian refugees in Lebanon with an enforced “return” to Syria—the place these people fled from.

The folding of the Syria conflict into the Global War on Terror, coupled with international re-alignments following the rise and success of the Islamic State movement (aka ISIS) in Syria and Iraq.

Currently the Syrian regime, Russia, Iran,  Hizballah, and the United States all claim to be fighting ISIS in Syria. President Aoun and the alliance he belongs to are allied to Damascus, and his election represents a growing acceptance of the Asad regime’s longevity, power, and continued role in Syria. This is despite the fact that Aoun himself fought the Syrian army in Lebanon during the civil war and later emerged as an important figure in the passage of the Syrian Accountability Act by the US Congress. In fact, Aoun only returned to Lebanon after the Syrian army withdrew from the country in 2005 following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri (the father of the currently selected Prime Minister, Saad al-Hariri).

Lebanon is currently facing numerous domestic and regional challenges.

From waste and refugee management (I purposely name them together to reflect the xenophobic ways Lebanese officials frame the “problem” of refugees), to the continuing deterioration of public life, services, and institutions, the coutry faces numerous challenges. The presidential void, and the concomitant lack of Christian (Maronite) representation in the executive branch, in some ways weakened the ability of the Lebanese state to credibly engage with these challenges without opening itself up to sectarian criticism. The election of Aoun allows the state to more forcefully implement its securitization plans and devastating economic policies with more “credibility.” On the flip side, now that there is a president, it will be easier to challenge the parasitic nature of the political class precisely because corruption and crushing neoliberal economic policies unites this class across sectarian, ideological, and regional divides.

Further to this latter point, it is perhaps no coincidence that the election of Aoun comes after the powerful grassroots, civil society-led movement to elect non-partisan technocrats during the 2016 municipal elections. The March 14 and March 8 political camps united in practice in order to defeat the wave of support for Beirut Madinati candidates, who despite not winning the elections drew an impressive percentage of the vote. The election of Aoun can be understood as a “response,” an act of establishment consolidation, to the electoral activism that exposed the weakness of established and seemingly inheritable political and economic power.

(J): How did the Lebanese polity manage without a head of state?

(MM): The Lebanese state has been functioning as a security state for years—arguably since the end of the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war and the establishment of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) earlier that same year. It is thus perhaps important to revisit the distinctions between “the state”—as a system of institutions and interlinked biopolitical technologies of population(s) management with an internal logic and rhythm, and “the government”—(s)elected officials and power brokers.  In addition, because the executive branch functions as a “troika” system consisting of president, prime minister, and speaker of parliament, the lack of a president did not mean the absence of executive power—particularly since the prime minister functioned as acting president during this period.

The fact that the state continued to operate without a president is also evidence of the weakened powers of that office. In the post-Ta’if era, the presidency has less executive and independent power than the premiership. The crisis of the presidency was therefore primarily a crisis of legitimacy, but not so much one of state power.  Now that there is a president and hence “legitimacy,” we can expect to see more intense enforcement of unpopular and damaging policies that target the most (socially and economically) vulnerable citizens and residents of Lebanon. This highlights the reality that the essential crisis of legitimacy facing the Lebanese political system today is the lack of an elected parliament. In my view, everything that flows from an unelected parliament, including the election of Aoun, lacks constitutional legitimacy.

(J): What additional issues are raised by these recent developments?

The election of Aoun to the presidency is more evidence of the fact that Lebanon has yet to engage with the legacies of either the 1975-1990 civil war or subsequent episodes of civil violence. As of this moment, the history books taught within the public school system end at 1975 precisely because there has not been a consensus about how to “teach” the civil war and its end.

Civil war is not only waged at the surface of the body, but also at the interface of memory and affect—the registers of the psycho-social. There has never been a frank and publicly-organized discussion of the ways that the memory-scape of the Lebanese Civil War is as fractured and polarized as the war itself was. And yet, we know from political theory and from cases such as Rwanda and South Africa, that an effective mechanism to build a common political future (within the nation-state structure) is to engage and produce a shared—even if divergent—political past centered on civilian experiences of war and trauma. Bassam Haddad has recently outlined the importance of engaging with the Syrian war not only as divergent ideologies, parties, or atrocities, but also at the level of the personal, the contradictory, the communal, and a shared recognition of what it takes to live and survive war and displacement. After all, it is human beings who will survive this war and will have to live together in “post-war” Syria, not ideologies or well thought out political positions.  The citizens and residents of Syria are the ones that must practice living together after a devastating war filled with atrocities, mass killing, displacement, and wholesale destruction—regardless of the “sides” they took or didn’t take during the war. These are the specific realities of civil-war and post-civil war worlds.

The same is true for Lebanon, twenty-six years after the official end of a fifteen-year civil war that killed over 150,000 and injured and maimed an equal number (out of a wartime population that hovered around 3,000,000), under the slogan of “no victors, no vanquished.” Unfortunately, it seems there are victors in Lebanon—the political class that was directly implicated in, benefited from, and transformed by the war and is now occupying all branches of government. Even more unfortunate, it seems there are also vanquished: namely the population (from all sides) that lived, died, and survived the war.  I am not only speaking of the 1975-1990 civil war. We should also demand that politicians who colluded with the United States and, by proxy, Israel during the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war be held accountable.  We know that these politicians colluded with the country Lebanon was at war with due to Wikileaks cables released years ago. Yet these politicians and political leaders are still shamelessly in power.

In Lebanon, we should recognize and find ways to address the violence and loss we experienced and inflicted upon each other during the war. The urgent need for this type of political action is evident in the election of Aoun. For many Lebanese, Aoun will never be anything other than a war criminal. Yet for others, he represents the promise of stability, a strong(er) state, and Christian representation. Is there space in Lebanon, for example, to openly discuss or think about the ways in which President Aoun’s election is both a traumatic event for many Lebanese and a popular event that inspires hope in many others? Such difficult conversations are important steps to building a consensus against the ruling class, which has been as deeply entwined with wartime politics and economies as it is in the current post-war era. If we understand civil war to be waged at the surface not only of bodies but also at the interfaces of affect, memory, and political imagination, then a commitment to living together must also be waged at these levels.

I am a strong advocate for immediate parliamentary elections, particularly because it is citizens who elect the parliament, and parliament elects the president—irrespective of how flawed the electoral system is. Calling for presidential elections—or celebrating the results of an election (in fact a selection, as only one candidate was nominated) —without first ensuring a legitimate parliament, only further disenfranchises citizens and further depoliticizes the fact that the current parliament is illegitimate. Instead of fixating on presidential elections, a term that is misleading because the process is better described as a “parliamentary selection,” I think we should realize that the only way for citizens to have any say in the political direction of the country is to hold immediate parliamentary elections under a new electoral law that treats the entirety of the country as one electoral district and lowers the voting age to eighteen. Such a law would also eliminate the gerrymandering that keeps many corrupt and ineffectual politicians in power.

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