The presidential election seems to have entered phase II with Hezbollah kicking off a new round of the process. The party is now showing itself ready to unveil — slowly but surely — its presidential cards.
After having defined the profile of the ideal president, through its secretary-general, Hezbollah appeared to move into higher gear on Sunday.
The party is working to ensure that “its candidate,” whose name has yet to be declared, ascends to the presidency, MP Mohammad Raad, head of Hezbollah’s parliamentary bloc, announced on Sunday.
This new stance comes as tension rises between the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, Gebran Bassil, and the head of the Marada Movement, Sleiman Frangieh — both men being the Christian allies of Hezbollah and perceived as serious presidential candidates.
As things stand today, the dispute between the two leaders is not likely to be resolved in the foreseeable future, with both men sticking to their positions and refusing to give ground to each other.
The two parties, in fact, take Hezbollah’s support for each one of them as a foregone conclusion. But Hezbollah, whose leader has called for a broader national agreement around the future president, has yet to officially declare itself in favor of a specific candidate.
‘We know who we want to elect’
“We want a president who would not betray the resistance and would not plot against it,” Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said Friday in a speech in which he outlined the profile of the next tenant of the Presidential Palace in Baabda.
This was the first time that Hezbollah clearly defined the characteristics of Michel Aoun’s successor.
Two days later, Raad went even further.
“Faced with the presidential deadline, we know who we want to elect, and we are acting to ensure that this person accedes to the presidency,” Raad said in a speech on Sunday.
Raad avoided naming “the candidate” in question, likely due to the completely broken relations between Bassil and Frangieh. This discord has prompted Hezbollah’s MPs to cast blank votes during the parliamentary sessions held to date for the election of a president.
But in the eyes of several observers, it is Frangieh who remains Hezbollah’s undeclared favored candidate, based on the characteristics that Nasrallah listed in his Friday speech.
But the FPM does not seem to hear it that way.
“When Hassan Nasrallah mentioned the presidential election, many of his supporters chanted the name of Gebran Bassil,” said Cesar Abi Khalil, FPM MP for Aley, who was present at Friday’s ceremony organized by the party on the occasion of “Martyr’s Day.”
For another Aounist parliamentarian who requested anonymity, “Hezbollah has made it clear to the FPM that its priority is to elect Gebran Bassil as head of state.”
The Marada Movement, however, brushes these claims aside.
“Forget what the Aounists are saying,” a source close to Frangieh told L’Orient-Le Jour on condition of anonymity. “We are Hezbollah’s allies, and we are convinced that they are engaged in a process that will be favorable to us,” he added.
Commenting on whether or not Frangieh’s candidacy is supported by the two major Christian parties in Parliament, namely the FPM and the Lebanese Forces, the same source stressed that “Frangieh has the support of at least 30 Christian MPs.”
Rai re-enters the fray
While waiting for Hezbollah to say its last word, nothing can be expected from the upcoming parliamentary session to elect the head of state, which is set to take place on Thursday.
This would be Parliament’s sixth attempt to elect a president — a procedure criticized by the head of the Maronite Church, Patriarch Bechara al-Rai, who did not mince his words in his Sunday sermon.
“These sessions have been a farce,” Rai said, denouncing, for the first time since the timeline to elect a new president began on Sept. 1, “the bitter failure of Parliament to elect a head of state.”
The patriarch called for an international conference to break the deadlock in Lebanon.
“Faced with Parliament’s failure to elect a new president, we see no solution except to hold an international conference dedicated to Lebanon,” he said.
Such a conference should aim, according to him, to “ensure the presence [on the international scene] of an independent Lebanon and preserve the country’s entity and democratic system.”
But contrary to Rai’s expectations, there is no reason to believe that the international community will be acting in favor of Lebanon in the near future.
At this stage, the international action remains verbal.
Less than a week after his meeting with caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati in Egypt, French President Emmanuel Macron raised the Lebanese issue in a telephone conversation on Saturday with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.
Macron “stressed the need to elect a president [in Lebanon] as soon as possible, so that the program of structural reforms essential to the country’s recovery is carried out,” according to a statement by the French presidency.
The two leaders agreed to “strengthen their cooperation to meet the humanitarian needs” of Lebanon, according to the same statement.
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Sahar Ghoussoub.