The Time for Moderation
By Ramez Dagher
BEIRUT: For a country that took 11 months to get out of the deadlock, the events of the past few days are revealing. Sleiman Frangieh will not run for the presidential elections: It's official. In his interview with Al-Mayadeen, the leader of the Marada party endorsed the candidacy of Michel Aoun. The FPM leader on the other hand was busy commending Saad Hariri's speech "characterized with moderation". On the other side of the political spectrum, Amine Gemayel was praising the Iranian policies in the regions, only days after Hariri promised the Patriarch that the presidential elections would be held on time.
Although it might be hard to believe, Frangieh's withdrawal makes sense. For M14, he is the most despised Christian leader out there. For Hezbollah and Amal, he is a minor Christian politician. For the FPM, he is a local ally that mustn't get stronger under any circumstances, especially that he is more likely to answer to Damascus than to Rabieh in case something goes bad between the Syrian regime and its biggest Christian ally. Frangieh hence has no shot at all to become president in 2014: Even if he runs as the sole candidate backed by M8, his name can never become a consensual one, and M14 pressure on Jumblatt would eventually prevent the latter of voting for the Marada candidate. By running for office in 2014, Frangieh would have angered the FPM, lost the elections, and found himself isolated. Patience is a virtue. Out of the "Maronite four" (Gemayel, Geagea, Aoun and himself), Frangieh is by far the youngest, and the very fact that in 2020 Amine Gemayel would be 78, Michel Aoun 86 and Samir Geagea 67 makes him the perfect candidate for the elections. By then, he would have become M8's number one, the Syrian crisis would have probably ended, and he'll get to have 6 years to adapt to any new situation, make new alliances, or switch sides. In 2020, the odds can be in his favor. In 2014, they're not.
Michel Aoun on the other hand understood the rules of the game (after years of experience). The president is practically always a consensual one, especially in times of crisis. Fouad Chehab was elected for refusing to engage the army in the conflict. Charles Helou was elected because he was one of Chehab's closest men to the opposition. Sleiman Frangieh was elected for his pro-Nasserist history and his anti-Palestinian tendencies. Elias Sarkis was elected for staying neutral throughout the first year of the civil war. In Lebanese politics, if you don't compromise, you lose it all: Raymond Edde stayed 50 years in the opposition and never made it to the presidential palace. And for the millionth time (see here, here, here, here and here), this is what Michel Aoun is trying to achieve. Even though he might never become a consensual candidate in the matter of a year's effort, he can still become M8's most moderate politician. And how do we know it works? Because his new moderate attitude made Frangieh withdraw for lack of support from M8 and M14, forced the different M8 factions to pamper him more (so he doesn't defect) and eventually unified M8 behind him while turning him into a more acceptable candidate to M14. After spending most of 2012 and 2013 accusing Hariri of being an extremist politician supporting rogue Islamist militants, he describes Hariri in 2014 of being the voice of moderation. There is no such thing as a coincidence. Everyone hoping to succeed has to be a moderate ahead of the presidential elections. For Michel Aoun, being a moderate means that he'll have to praise the Future Movement.
When I say everyone, I include M14's candidate. And while we're at it, there will be one, and only one candidate coming from the ranks of M14. Hariri reiterated in his meeting with the Patriarch on Friday that the March 14 coalition would field one presidential contender. Meanwhile in the Christian camp of M14, the Kataeb - now strong of their huge share in the cabinet - are preparing their comeback. Among the possible candidates for the presidency, there's LF leader Samir Geagea (head of the biggest Christian M14 party) , popular independent MPs such as Boutros Hareb, and last but not least former president Amine Gemayel, leader of the Kataeb party.
M14 needs a candidate that is in full harmony with its policies while being at the same time acceptable by M8. Samir Geagea, while being the strongest Christian in M14, doesn't fit the criteria. The majority of independent MPs , although enjoying some support and prestige from the parliament - Boutros Hareb has been in the parliament for the past 42 years - are also too violent for M8.
One has to see it from a very particular perspective. Aoun is popular, was a commander of the army and a former prime minister, is seen as protector of Christian interests (due to his stances on the cabinet formation and the electoral law), has strong allies, is currently establishing ties with various parties - notably the Future Movement, and is fashioning himself as a moderate. If M14 wants a serious competitor, the first name coming to mind is Amine Gemayel. He leads Lebanon's oldest and most prestigious Christian party, had the same stances regarding the electoral law and the cabinet, has good ties with most of the parties and is at the core of M14. Also who's better to compete with Aoun than the president who appointed him as commander of the army and later prime minister?
The Kataeb are aware of their sudden power in the executive power and of the precious value of their leader: Amine Gemayel asked for the elections to be held on time, dismissed any other consensual candidate by requesting the parliament to elect a strong president (hinting at "the Maronite Four"), nominating himself to the presidency and finally starting to laud some of the M8 rivals, namely Iran. Like Michel Aoun, he is showing his moderate side. While rumors on the streets say that Hariri is likely going to endorse the leader of the Kataeb, Gemayel's relation with Lebanon's kingmaker Walid Jumblatt isn't very good (due to civil war-related issues). Since Jumblatt isn't a fan of Aoun either, we might probably see a third consensual name endorsed by the centrists. The press is circulating the names of Jean Obeid (who apparently also enjoys the support of Berri and Hariri) and the usual "two Maronites" : the commander of the army and the governor of the central bank.
2014 Is Not 2008 (Or Is It?)
Even if the elections are held on time, and even if the M8 and M14 alliances do not boycott the elections and everything goes according to the plan (no lack of quorum), there is still one problem: None of both alliances can secure 65 votes (absolute majority) to support its candidate. While it is more obvious by the day that M14 and M8 would be each supporting one candidate to the presidency, it remains unclear what side Walid Jumblatt and Mikati's parliamentary blocs would back. If the Jumblatt-Mikati duo decides not to participate in the elections, neither M8 nor M14 will be able to secure the post for its candidate. Without Jumblatt and Mikati, M14 has around 58 MPs while M8 has a bit less than that (around 57).
The constitution stipulates that a 2/3 majority is necessary to elect a president in the first round, while an absolute majority would be needed for all the rounds after that. unlike 2007, when the presence of M8 and M14 in the parliament would have probably ended in an M14 candidate as a president (since they held the majority), the elections of 2014 are different. Even if everyone shows up, the elections would be like a play. The MPs will keep voting for the same candidates, and since no camp can secure 65 votes, the elections can go on forever. In other words, none of the two coalition will take it upon itself to boycott the parliamentary session and get treated with disregard from the public for "paralyzing the states' institutions". Because unlike 2008, there is no coalition holding the majority of votes in the parliament which means that the minority coalition doesn't need to boycott and block quorum in order to prevent the majority of electing a president of its ranks.
While nothing is official or definite, we are approaching the elections with 2 candidates, Michel Aoun of M8 and Amine Gemayel of M14 that are - unlike 2007 - fighting to get the support of the rival camp by playing the moderate card, while the name of the third consensual candidate is soon to be determined.
Reminder: The government didn't win the confidence vote yet.
Reprinted with the permission of Moulahazat political blog. Ramez Dagher is a popular political blogger and medical student at AUB in Beirut. Moulahazat is from Arabic for: Notes, Reviews, Feedbacks, Observations and Remarks.