Across all types of societies and political systems, the objective of choosing a leader is to designate the best person for the job out of a pool of eligible candidates. This pool can be as small as a family or as large as a country, while the selection process can be broad or extremely narrow.
For many historical reasons, Lebanon is unusual among modern republics in its handling of presidential elections. Although the constitution mandates that only “merit and competence” shall fundamentally guide the eligibility of candidates, the political truth in 2014 remains that only male Maronite Christians constitute the pool of acceptable candidates for the presidency. Moreover, the opaque nature of the selection process is such that many Lebanese are convinced the president is chosen by foreign powers and merely rubberstamped by the Lebanese Parliament.
In the long run, the health of the Lebanese democracy requires more citizen involvement in the deliberations on who is the best person to be the next president of Lebanon. Statements by professional politicians that no foreign ambassadors or governments must play a role in the presidential election are not enough. Only if local stakeholders involve themselves constructively in this discussion can foreign influence be removed from decision-making. Similarly, the safety and prosperity of the country require a president who can be a model of integrity and a credible symbol of national unity.
For this reason, candidates that were directly implicated in the vicious 15-year civil war should be dismissed. Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun, Lebanese Forces chief Samir Geagea and Marada head Suleiman Frangieh have each spilled too much blood to be seen as a legitimate representative for all of Lebanon. Even if one can forgive sins of the past, these associations are clearly obstacles that stand in the way of focusing on the job at hand.
Most fundamentally of all, the holder of the office needs to have a deep understanding and competency in regard to the economy. The country’s business leaders are either fleeing or suffering, national productivity is static and much of the population remains in desperate poverty. The economy must be the new president’s priority.
As such, even if the candidates mentioned above had not been militia leaders, none would have been a serious choice as they all have poor records of successful economic management. All have faced allegations of malpractice, while they have done little to reshape the failing Lebanese state.
Of those who remain, a number have the potential to do an honest job. Former Minister of Interior Ziyad Baroud has shown himself economically competent, while he has a long track record of commitment to transparency and civil society. As Lebanon still lacks political parties where aspiring young people can prove themselves and acquire skills for moving into political leadership, it is encouraging to see that civil society is increasingly fulfilling this function.
Yet Baroud’s experience as a minister was ultimately a frustrating one, with him often proving unable to manage those who really hold the power in the country. Too often, well-meaning schemes would be derailed by those more used to winning the Lebanese political game. Baroud eventually opted to resign, rather than allow his authority to be compromised by these influences. His unwillingness to play the game over principle signals that he is not yet ready for the realities of political life in the country. 2020 may be a more realistic goal.
Some other personalities, such as the banker Joseph Torbey, the consultant Roger Dib, the diplomatic Jean Obeid and the engineer Henri Helou also have decent qualifications. However they are either too little known or too powerless to take on the top job.
The one candidate with the ability to reassert the position of the presidency is Riad Salameh, governor of Lebanon’s central bank for over two decades. This is not merely the opinion of this magazine, but that of the Lebanese populace. A new poll conducted by Ipsos puts him as the top candidate for the Lebanese economy.
The people have got it right for several reasons. As governor of the central bank, Salameh has demonstrated uncanny skill in maintaining the Lebanese currency and monetary policy during periods of economic crisis. At the same time, his stewardship of the financial sector has been a testimony to foresight, and his focus on sound fundamentals has kept the Lebanese out of perilous adventures that drowned numerous lenders in other jurisdictions.
There can be no doubt that Salameh has kept his ear to the pulse of the Lebanese economy with greater continuity and regulatory efficiency than any other elected or appointed official in the past twenty years. In 2013 and again in 2014, he stepped up and took the initiative to create two economic stimulus packages. While these packages may not have produced perfect results, their overall impact was clearly beneficial, and they included measures that the central bank governor initiated during times of need when political institutions were suffering paralysis. More often than not over the past twenty years, when the country’s politicians have fought themselves into a stalemate, Salameh has stepped in to keep the country from collapse. Sometimes, he has appeared to be the prime minister, the minister of economy and the minister of finance at the same time.
On the political side, Salameh is not identified with a strong political interest or partisanship. Likewise he is also not impaired by associations with the violent past of the civil war years.
While it is up to the Lebanese Parliament, through the constitutional institutions, to select a president without consideration of foreign interests, it is paramount that the head of state be the person most qualified to represent Lebanon’s dignity and interests in the global political arena. Riad Salameh could embody this role. As a regular participant in the international meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, he is, importantly, experienced at the highest levels of international negotiations on the global economic and structural approaches to solving the Middle East crisis that is still unfolding around Syria. In these international discussions and political negotiations, Lebanon urgently needs a representative who can stand up to the big power players. As the country seeks to pick itself up and move forward again, Salameh offers the best hope of making Lebanon a true partner in the international community rather than a puppet of greater powers.
There are some issues — not least the potential loss to the central bank Salameh’s move would cause. Ensuring a smooth transition in that role is key. In addition, the Lebanese constitution states top government officials cannot be elected president unless they resign two years before the election. In theory, this rules out Salameh, but this law has been lifted before — most recently for current president and former army chief Michel Sleiman.
Lebanon does not require a superman, or a savior. It needs the most professionally qualified person for a challenging and often unappreciated position. Salameh is clearly the man for the job. He must make himself available and Parliament should vote him in.