In less than one month, Lebanon’s new Prime Minister, Najib Mikati, has managed to pull through with two noteworthy achievements. One is securing a much needed US$1.35 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to relieve the country’s cash-strapped economy. Although coming way short of solving the nation’s nest of problems, this money can help stabilize Lebanon’s exchange rate and serve as a catalyst for future negotiations with the IMF for a US$9-10 billion loan requested in the summer of 2020.
Second on Mikati’s list is calling for early parliamentary elections next March. They had originally been scheduled for May 8, 2022, and to an outside observer, a six-week difference means little to nothing. Within Lebanon, however, early elections send significant messages, both locally and internationally. Particularly since the upcoming cabinet will decide who Lebanon’s next president will be when Michel Aoun’s term ends in October 2022.
Pleasing the French
This date change pleases France – a traditional patron of the small Mediterranean country – and its President, Emmanuel Macron. Back in September 2020, The French President had made early elections a cornerstone of his country’s policy towards Lebanon, after putting forth an initiative for reform which never saw the light of day. Macron wanted Lebanese leaders to commit to serious political and administrative changes, and to agree to a power-sharing formula where no party or sect would get permanent rights to a particular cabinet office. He visited Beirut twice in the autumn of last year and got nothing but lip service from Lebanese politicians.
French President Emmanuel Macron wanted Lebanese leaders to commit to serious political and administrative changes.
He has since altered his approach to Lebanon and is now focused on encouraging young people and civil society groups to enter Parliament, hoping that they can push for substantial restructuring through the legislative branch. Indeed, holding early elections was also one of the many demands voiced by angry Lebanese youth who took to the streets of Beirut two years ago, in what has since been coined the October Revolution of 2019. They also called for better public services, more jobs, accountability for corruption, and a revamp of the entire political system, among other things.
The Aoun-Basil Objection
Not everybody is happy with early elections, however. First on the list is Gibran Basil, the powerful son-in-law of President Michel Aoun who heads one of the two leading Christian parties in the country, known as the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM). Basil does not want the elections to take place, fearing that a vote would destroy his current share in Parliament, an impressive 29 seats won back in 2018. He has been pushing for a delay, citing the security breakdown in the country and lack of funds to bankroll a nationwide vote.
Basil has lost a big chunk of the support of the Maronite Christian community that he represents due to years of corruption, nepotism, and mismanagement, and that dwindling backing will show when Lebanese go to the ballots. He was also sanctioned by the Trump administration last November, prompting many to rethink their allegiance to him.
Basil has lost a big chunk of the support of the Maronite Christian community that he represents due to years of corruption, nepotism, and mismanagement.
During the Aoun-Basil era, the banking and tourism sectors— once the backbone of the Lebanese economy— have collapsed, the local currency has plummeted to its lowest rate ever, depositors have been locked out of their US dollars accounts, and a massive explosion at the port of Beirut in August 2020 tore down half the city and killed over 230 people. At least three ministers have been formally accused of “criminal negligence” that led to the port explosion, along with former Prime Minister Hassan Diab, who was parachuted to the job by Gibran Basil in early 2020.
Lebanon’s Next Presidential Election
Not only does Basil run the high risk of slashing his parliamentary bloc by half, but he also faces the difficult task of nominating himself for the presidency, when Aoun’s term ends. To secure the country’s top post, he needs 65 out of 128 votes in Parliament. And even if he maintains the current majority next March, he is still 33 votes short of making it to Lebanon’s seat of power, known as the Baabda Palace.
Indeed, none of the Christian parties support him, with each having its own candidate for the presidency, and nor does the powerful Shiite party, Hezbollah. In fact, Hezbollah is eyeing the job for its long-time ally Suleiman Frangieh of the Marada Movement, a scion of a leading Maronite political family who happens to be close to both Syria and Iran.
If Basil had his way, he would have extended the tenure of the existing chamber until after the presidential elections of October 2022, but France would never agree to that, and neither would the people of Lebanon. Last week, Basil even toyed with the idea of preventing expatriates from voting — a large number of whom left the country over the past two years due to his malpractices. Basil feels that they have already voted with their feet regarding the Aoun administration and would likely vote against him in any vote. Depriving expatriates the right to vote, however, has since been shelved, because it has no constitutional base.
Basil’s presidential contender, Suleiman Frangieh, currently commands a tiny bloc of three MPs and is represented in the Mikati government with two portfolios, Information and Telecommunications. He is banking on his family roots, with his grandfather and namesake having been President of Lebanon in the 1970s, while his father, Tony Frangieh, was one of many of the country’s promising leaders murdered during Lebanon’s civil war.
Suleiman Frangieh realizes that he cannot make it to office unless he accommodates Hezbollah.
Frangieh realizes that he cannot make it to office unless he accommodates Hezbollah, the most powerful party in Lebanon, and the Shiite community that it represents. He has already promised to protect their arsenal and to stand up to any foreign attempts at disarming the party, as specifically mentioned in UNSCR 1701. Passed in August 2006, the UN resolution prohibits armed militias from operating in Lebanon and calls for monopolizing military arms in the hands of the Lebanese state.
Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah had wanted to make Frangieh president in 2016 but back then, it had been decided to postpone his nomination until 2022, in order to give the job to Michel Aoun, who was much older than Frangieh. The Marada Movement that Frangieh leads is far smaller than Aoun and Basil’s FPM, and yet expects to increase its parliamentary share at the expense of the Aounists, from three to between six and eight MPs. That too would remain a small bloc, explaining why Frangieh needs the support of the twin Shiite parties, Amal and Hezbollah, in order to become president.
The two parties currently form a joint bloc of 26 MPs, which has been fairly constant for the past two decades and will likely remain intact during next March’s vote. In addition to their arms and the numerical majority of their constituency, the two parties enjoy the blessing of Nabih Berri, speaker of Lebanon’s Parliament and head of the Amal Movement, who will preside over the presidential elections in October 2022.
The Hariri Factor
This is where former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri comes into play, tipping the balance in any upcoming chamber and presidential vote. Hariri and Berri are good friends and sound allies, although they stand at different ends of the political spectrum. Both see eye-to-eye when it comes to the presidency and agree that Suleiman Frangieh would make a far better president than Gibran Basil.
Hariri’s Future Movement remains the strongest Sunni Muslim party in Lebanon.
Hariri’s Future Movement remains the strongest Sunni Muslim party in Lebanon, with a parliamentary bloc of 23 MPs. His allies are expected to win the lion’s share of seats in the upcoming elections, given that Hariri faces no serious contender in the Sunni street and has managed to endear himself to the people by resigning from his job in the aftermath of the October Revolution of 2019.
Last July, Hariri declined to form a government, citing impossible conditions put forth by Gibran Basil, which he could not meet (such as giving the Aounists full control over all Christian ministers). If he manages to raise his share up to 30 MPs, which is highly likely, then his MPs, along with the help of the two Shiite parties, can secure the presidency for Suleiman Frangieh.
They would be backed by Najib Mikati himself and the Druze bloc of Walid Jumblatt, which currently holds nine seats in Parliament— and is expected to rise to 11-12 in March. Mikati’s party, known as the Azm Movement, currently holds four seats in Parliament, but with him serving as Prime Minister now, that bloc is expected to increase significantly— all to the benefit of Suleiman Frangieh, rather than Gibran Basil.