Saturday’s meeting between Gebran Bassil and Farid Haykal Khazen, an ally of Sleiman Frangieh, inaugurated the campaign’s race.
Even before the Gordian knot of cabinet formation was undone, the presidential campaign seems to have already begun in Lebanon. A crucial election period — scheduled in principle from Aug. 31 and up to one month before the end of Michel Aoun’s term on Oct. 31 — that relegates the cabinet issue to the background for all actors.
For several weeks now, statements and announcements have followed one another, seemingly in a bid to pave the way for an election that some doubt will take place.
The meeting held on Saturday between Free Patriotic Movement head Gebran Bassil and MP Farid Haykal Khazen, an ally of Marada Movement leader Sleiman Frangieh, inaugurated the campaign marathon.
While the final list of presidential candidates is far from being decided, the respective positions of the potential candidates are gradually becoming clearer, which gives an idea about the expected battle.
For the time being, the talk behind the scenes is focused on four so-called “serious” candidates: the commander-in-chief of the army, Gen. Joseph Aoun, the head of the Lebanese Forces, Samir Geagea, Sleiman Frangieh and Gebran Bassil.
While Gen. Aoun has never said anything about his own candidacy, even privately, this is not the case for the other candidates, who have spoken about it, but only implicitly, without revealing their true intention.
This is particularly the case for Sleiman Frangieh who declared in a television interview in March that he was not “begging anyone to be president.”
“If the election is there and the circumstances are favorable to me, then we will see,” he added.
Although this statement is unclear, it suggests that the Marada leader is aiming for the presidency. Some will even say that he has the best chance at the moment. Known for being close to Syria and Hezbollah, Frangieh made sure to declare that there will be no president hostile to Hezbollah.
This would eliminate the chances of a candidate like the LF leader, a fierce opponent of the pro-Iranian party, from the start. Geagea is aware of this, but he probably does not want to admit that he is out of the game at the beginning nor does he want to recognize the omnipotence of Hezbollah in the country’s main issues.
This is probably why, while declaring himself “the first natural candidate” for the presidency, he has been clearly open to the election of the army chief, believing that the latter has qualities that would make him a good president.
In a televised interview on June 30, the LF leader called for the support of other candidates from the ranks of the opposition. A call that he reiterated this weekend. “The LF is ready for discussions with all of the opposition parties to agree on a single candidate, because the failure of such a step would facilitate the advent of a president from the other camp,” he warned.
“Geagea wanted to set the tone for an important election that revolves around two opposing projects: the project of building the state, or that of destroying it and the promotion of [Hezbollah’s] weapons,” LF spokesman Charles Jabbour told L’Orient-Le Jour, in reference to a deep rift on this issue.
As for Bassil, he has simply stated that he has not yet announced his candidacy. In a speech on July 5, the FPM leader indicated that he will have “an opinion and a word” to say when the time comes.
This brief statement raises doubts about the true intentions of the MP, who has been dreaming for years of taking over after the departure of his father-in-law, Michel Aoun.
In Aounist circles critical of the FPM leader, it is said that Bassil, hit by US sanctions and blacklisted by the international community, is increasingly aware of the difficulty of passing the test.
“Who among the MPs [with the possible exception of Hezbollah] is going to take the risk of compromising their relations with the United States and vote for a person sanctioned by Washington?” a Western source close to the matter said.
This is probably the reason that would push Bassil to scale down his ambitions, particularly since he will have to convince Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, a tough opponent of the Aounists, of the suitability of his candidacy.
The person, who was among the artisans of the “strong president” slogan that punctuated Michel Aoun’s term, seems to be disappointed today.
“Experience has shown that the president alone cannot do much. The real change is through an evolution of the system,” added Bassil in his speech.
Odds-on chance for Frangieh?
While the FPM leader and Geagea’s chances seem slim, those of Frangieh could be higher, even though it is too soon to anticipate.
With a parliamentary bloc of only four MPs, Frangieh must inevitably count on the support of a strong Christian bloc, which in this case means the FPM, since the LF will naturally not give him their vote.
“Sleiman Frangieh can only be elected president if Gebran Bassil endorses his candidacy,” said a well-informed source.
The Marada leader can also count on another major decision-maker, Hezbollah, of which he would be the top favorite, but also on the Amal movement, which already supports him.
Yet, Hassan Nasrallah’s party will have to choose between its two allies, Bassil and Frangieh, a dilemma that he has already faced in 2016 when he finally chose Michel Aoun over the Marada leader.
The reconciliation that took place between the two Maronite rivals in April, under the impetus of Hassan Nasrallah who brought them together around an iftar, should, in principle, facilitate an agreement on the presidential election, if Bassil withdraws in favor of Frangieh.
“I will not run for president without the support of my political allies,” said the leader of Zgharta a few days after the iftar in the southern suburbs, as an allusion to Bassil.
On Saturday, the lunch that brought together Bassil, at his residence in Laqlouq, and MP Farid Haykal Khazen, a member of the Marada bloc, was interpreted as a new sign indicating that an agreement is being cooked up on the presidential election.
According to sources close to both parties, this lunch could be followed by a meeting between the FPM leader and the Marada leader in person.
“The compromise candidate”
Away from the traditional political arena, the name of Joseph Aoun is increasingly circulating. Officially, Geagea was the first to announce his support for the commander of the army.
But if the army chief’s candidacy is to be seriously considered, his path to Baabda is full of obstacles.
Will Gen. Aoun, who is widely appreciated by Western powers including the United States, have the blessing of Hezbollah? It is difficult to tell at the moment, particularly since Hezbollah, which claims to have no problem with him, continues to express preference for Frangieh behind the scenes.
“Joseph Aoun is the most appropriate compromise candidate, because he has proven to be independent from all political parties and he enjoys internal and external support,” said a military source who declined to be named.
Joseph Aoun will have to pass another test before having the right to become president: that of amending Constitution Article 49 which states that “judges and civil servants of the first category are not eligible to be elected during the exercise of their functions and during the two years following the date of their resignation and the actual termination of the exercise of their functions or the date of their retirement.”
This article had already been amended to allow the election of Gen. Emile Lahoud in 1998, and Gen. Michel Sleiman in 2008 as heads of state.
This article was originally published in French with L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Joelle El Khoury.