Home Economics & Policy A beginner’s guide to Lebanon’s presidential election

A beginner’s guide to Lebanon’s presidential election

Understanding how the country will select its new leader

by Domhnall O'Sullivan

The window is open. As evident from the increased political posturing and daily media coverage, the race to replace President Michel Sleiman has begun. In just under two months, Lebanon will – barring exceptional circumstances – see a new face swear the presidential oath, assume the presidential duties, and occupy the Presidential Palace at Baabda.

Conscious of the intricacies of the Lebanese political system – not to mention the frequent occurrence of “exceptional circumstances” – Executive has put together a primer to help readers understand the procedures and horse-trading that are likely to take place in the coming months. Neither predictive nor proscriptive, this guide offers four simple steps to getting to grips with the presidency.

Click on the sections below to start exploring.


1. Know thy constitution
2. Know thy politics
3. Know thy candidates
4. Know thy limits

The founding charter of the state, the 1926 Constitution of Lebanon, is at the same time clear and misleading in its stipulations for electing a President.

What is fundamental is that the Parliament – not a popular ballot – determines the head of state. Article 73 states that the Chamber must be convened for this purpose “one month at least and two months at most” before the end of the term of office of the incumbent president. That means May 25 of this year, when Sleiman’s six-year mandate comes to an end. If this date is missed, Parliament will meet “automatically” ten days before the expiration date.

Yet it gets more complicated. The numbers needed for victory are at least precise: a two-thirds majority in the first round of voting, or failing this, a simple majority (65 out of 128 votes) in subsequent rounds. But, unlike with other parliamentary procedures, the Constitution does not stipulate the legal quorum necessary for the vote to be valid.

While it is not clear in the Constitution how many MPs must be in the chamber to render the vote valid, the precedent established by current Speaker Nabih Berri is that two-thirds of deputies must be present before a vote can be called.The process is guaranteed to be a show of constitutional wrangling, differing legal interpretations, and – of course – political bargaining.

The previous election in 2008 is a prime example of how political jousting can manipulate – or foil – the fundamental guidelines of the constitution.

Speaker of the House Nabih Berri called for session after session to elect a successor to Emile Lahoud, yet to no avail. At a time of acute political polarization between March 8 and March 14, and lacking a pre-arranged political agreement, deputies simply boycotted Parliament in order to prevent a quorum becoming possible. This scuttled any attempt to convene from November 2007 – when Lahoud stepped down – until May 2008, when a consensual agreement was finally reached to select Michel Sleiman.

The political climate is key to predicting the outcome of the presidential race. With the result often predetermined by extensive package deals and political concessions (especially in the case of a consensus cabinet without any clear majority) all major stakeholders – within and outside Lebanon – need to be satisfied. Intense consensus building is required for the process to work.

In 2014, most political parties and foreign powers have highlighted the necessity of electing a new president on time in order to avoid another executive vacuum. But recent government wrangling about the appointment of key senior officials, as well as the poor showing last week for Sleiman’s National Dialogue initiative, demonstrate that political differences could still hamper the process. In this case, as during the vacuum following the end of Lahoud’s term, the presidential powers would be co-opted temporarily by the cabinet.

The president of Lebanon must be a Maronite Christian. As with the designation of the other top political roles in the country, this sectarian prerequisite is part of the unwritten National Pact of 1943 and unquestioned. Candidates will only emerge from the Christian parties or communities.

Joining these traditions is a constitutional rule that it is “not possible to elect judges, grade one civil servants or their equivalents in all public institutions” unless they have resigned from this position two years before the election. This means the head of the armed forces, often seen as a potential savior in times of instability, cannot be directly thrown into the role of President. Unless, of course, the constitution is amended to allow it, which is what happened in 2008 and 1998 for Generals Sleiman and Lahoud respectively.

Politically, current potential candidates and previous office-holders offer a various bunch of résumés. Just as Christian parties occupy spaces across the political spectrum, presidents can hail from the March 8 or March 14 political camps or be independent and have had contrasting personalities. Michel Sleiman was a neutral, consensual, and arguably quiet figure. Before him, Emile Lahoud was widely seen as led by Syrian dictates, while his predecessor Elias Hrawi was a tough but pragmatic post-war leader. Strongmen such as Suleiman Frangieh Senior and statesmen such as Amine Gemayel have also held the top job in the past. If there is no obvious silver lining weaving through the list of presidential figures, the necessity in recent decades of installing consensual figures has meant that the past three presidents have been “independent” – at least in name.

Among those in the running for this year’s election are the leaders of the two largest Christian parties – the Free Patriotic Movement’s Michel Aoun and the Lebanese Forces head Samir Geagea, the only candidate to have officially declared. Aoun is allied to the March 8 camp, while Geagea is allied to March 14. As such, the potential for a ‘neutral’ candidate to emerge remains large – with potential candidates including Jean Kawagi, Commander General of the Lebanese Army, and Ziad Baroud, a prominent civil society activist and businessman.

“The President of the Republic is the head of the state and the symbol of the nation’s unity. He shall safeguard the constitution and Lebanon’s independence, unity, and territorial integrity.” These grand words from Article 49 of the Lebanese constitution testify to the importance of the President as the figurehead of the country, while the article also confers upon him the position of Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces.

With no explicit mechanism for presidential accountability, this created a position of considerable power, more akin to a presidential democracy than the parliamentary democracy that Lebanon was declared to be. “During the covenant period, strong presidentialism imprinted all aspects of Lebanese political life,” writes Imad Salamey in The Government and Politics of Lebanon.

But this has shifted somewhat, visibly and legally. The amendments of the 1989 Ta’if Agreement not only reduced the Christian representation in Parliament but also the influence of the president. The new formula aimed to transfer executive power from the president towards the Council of Ministers as a body, thus de facto strengthening the position of the prime minister. This led to the current so-called ‘troika’ system of leadership, whereby the president, prime minister and speaker coordinate – or clash – regarding their respective powers.

The president still plays an important role in the designation of the prime minister and cabinet, but he does not have the same day-to-day policymaking clout of his counterparts in countries such as the United States or France. Yet ultimately, politics is about maximizing the hand you have been dealt. Former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri once noted of the differences or conflicts within the troika that they are a matter of “different personal moods.” The president, although bound by written laws, nevertheless has scope to exercise his own constitutional vigor.


Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Lebanon’s Constitution requires that the president be male. While the official Arabic text does use the word “hua” (“he”) to refer to the president, this is simply the default pronoun, much like the English use of “he” in gender-neutral situations. By comparison, the United States Constitution also uses “he” to refer to its president; yet few would suggest that this rules out a female president.

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Domhnall O'Sullivan

Domhnall O'Sullivan is a journalist and political analyst based in Beirut

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