Lebanon needs a true election to find its next president


Lebanon needs a true election to find its next president

Lebanon needs a true election to find its next president
The empty presidential chair after Michel Aoun’s six-year term officially ended, Baabda Palace, Lebanon, Nov. 1, 2022. (Reuters)
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While the Lebanese Constitution defines governance mechanisms for state institutions, most state entities are personality-centered fiefdoms rather than institutional. For example, there is a historical national habit to fixate on the prime minister and not the government; the speaker of the house and not the parliament; and the president and not the presidency. The constitution also assumes that a person who holds a seat of power is governing based on an institutional mandate because that is what legitimate and competent rule ought to imply.

As per Article 49 of the constitution, the president of the republic is elected by parliament in two voting rounds: The first ballot requires a two-thirds majority, the second requires an absolute majority. Both require a quorum of MPs to turn up and vote. When there is insufficient attendance, this constitutional procedure can fall victim to the tyranny of the minority and parliament cannot assume its role as an electoral body. This national hamster wheel can continue with calls for sessions and intentional absence, hijacking the constitution.

Michel Aoun became president in 2016 at the 46th session of parliament after 45 attempts to vote in a new head of state had failed. It took more than two and a half years. As has become a national habit, a candidate won because a deal was struck. For a deal to go through, the interests of key powerbrokers must be empowered with measurable benefits. The loss of time helps build negotiating power. Emile Lahoud was a deal. Michel Suleiman was a deal. Aoun was a deal.

Also, as per the constitution, the ballot is secret. The parliamentary floor is not the deal room; members of parliament choose their candidate behind closed doors, in political consultations with realpolitik cost-benefit analysis. Some candidates are intentionally publicly withheld until the very last minute, during the voting round when parliament is in session with a quorum. The media and the people are not party to the intricacies of these discussions. The terms and conditions for a vote of confidence are often not disclosed.

But there is not only a death by governance, there is also a dearth of data. Candidates are not expected to present a platform with a studied action plan. They are not asked to participate in public due diligence. They are not required to present their knowledge and stress test their values and priorities. They do not need to be put to the test against other candidates. No meritocratic mechanism is constitutionally required, so why put one in place?

In other words, Lebanon has never experienced presidential elections. And the governance is so broken that the people do not even ask for it. The expectation is just not there. Because why pontificate when nothing will change? This old Lebanese adage also has a habitual track record. However, just because it might — perhaps — not be feasible to have a well-governed, transparent and professional election of the next president in Lebanon today, that does not mean we should not be asking for a better practice.

The Lebanese Constitution tells us that there is no direct accountability between people and president. With no popular vote, there is also no constituency data collection. The people exhibit data differently, by debating at the dinner table, postulating in the news, posting memes and political satire on social media, and bidding the exiting president farewell on the streets. But do MPs collect this data? Do they recognize that the people can hold them accountable to it?

Being a passive spectator of political commandments should no longer be enough for the Lebanese people, neither for those who have left nor those who are still at home. What if the people unequivocally demanded the full public disclosure of all constitutional and non-constitutional proceedings? What if they stood their ground until the plans of action of every nominated candidate were publicly presented? What if they became the agents of accountability and obligated their elected representatives to publicly explain their vote for the head of state of the next six years? The dynamic would change and a new citizen-led governance would be given the upper hand for the first time in our history.

So, who do we need as head of state for the Lebanon of tomorrow? The Lebanon of the next six years will be the result of a policy of no reform, no law and no order. Our families and children will never be so hungry and chronically malnourished. New poverty indicators will emerge from the ground up that are far beyond our darkest imagination. The Lebanese lira will be a memory of the past, with no new local currency regime to halt the destruction of value and no hard currency to pivot the country onto a new trajectory. Talent will never be so lost and broken, and whoever can self-expel themselves will do so.

The geopolitical encroachment of Iran, Syria, Turkey, Russia and Israel will leave Lebanon behind. Lebanon will become an irrelevant member of the international community, left to fall because no friend meaningfully joined forces with the Lebanese people. That is the Lebanon we are heading toward at full speed.

Being a passive spectator of political commandments should no longer be enough for the Lebanese people.

Lynn Zovighian

Baabda Palace is now empty and the next president of Lebanon is practically set up for failure. Who would want this job? Being presidential needs to take on a whole new meaning and a whole new way. It is not about electing a president in parliament and fueling national habitual fallacies. It is about rebuilding the presidency as a state institution; a constitutional asset that relieves the country of historical entrapment and gives life to near-death.

It will not be enough for the next president to be a good human being and a stately leader. Only by closing Baabda Palace and living the same experiences as the people with no electricity, cholera in their water and no food at the table will the next president be a national team player that has a chance of getting it right for all of us.

  • Lynn Zovighian is the co-founder and managing director of The Zovighian Partnership, a family-owned social investment platform that conducts community-centered research, designs and implements humanitarian and socioeconomic interventions. Twitter: @lynnzovighian
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