Lebanon was scheduled for presidential elections on Wednesday, but for the 32nd time in two years, parliament failed to achieve the necessary quorum to select a president. The frontrunner had been Suleiman Frangieh, a pro-Syrian lawmaker, and although Lebanon has temporarily averted the election of yet another pro-Damascus president, the country’s prospects remain dim. The elections have been rescheduled for January 7, but whatever the outcome – whether a new president is chosen or the Presidential Palace remains vacant – the winner will be the same: Hezbollah.
Lebanon’s sect-based political system, in place since 1943, means the president must always be a Maronite Christian (the prime minister must be Sunni Muslim and the parliamentary speaker Shiite). The president is not chosen through direct elections, but by a parliamentary vote requiring a quorum of two-thirds of parliament.
Syria’s occupation of Lebanon in the years after the country’s civil war ended in 1990 has meant that the presidency has generally been filled with officials close to Damascus and its ally Hezbollah. Even after Syrian forces withdrew in 2005, Hezbollah has maintained that power by allying with General Michel Aoun, the leader of parliament’s largest Christian party, thereby achieving virtual veto power over presidential elections.
While Aoun is ostensibly Hezbollah’s preferred candidate, the Party of God will have an equally close ally if Frangieh is selected. Not only does the latter share Hezbollah’s close ties to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, but he is also an enthusiastic supporter of the group’s “resistance” against Israel and spurns any attempt to disarm it. Frangieh fiercely opposes an international tribunal into the role of Hezbollah and Syria in the murder of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, and even waxes poetic about his gratitude for “living in the days of Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah,” the leader of Hezbollah.
Frangieh – a childhood friend of the Syrian leader whose family’s alliance with the Assads goes back decades – has described Lebanon and Syria as parts of one “integrated whole.” He is also an admirer of the organization’s primary patron Iran, praising its expanding role in the region and crediting its “Axis of Resistance” for saving Lebanon from the ravages of the Syrian civil war.
Despite Frangieh’s pro-Syria sentiments, he also has the unlikely political support of Saad Hariri – son of the assassinated premier and leader of the pro-Western March 14 Alliance. Hariri appears to hope that supporting the frontrunner will allow him to safely return home from Saudi Arabia, where he has been in a self-imposed exile since 2011.
If Frangieh is ultimately elected – or less likely, Aoun – the Shiite movement will have a staunch supporter as head of state. By contrast, if the presidential vacancy continues, Hezbollah will use it to continue flaunting the government’s impotence (the months-long garbage crisis is one piquant example), presenting itself as the only viable alternative.
Hezbollah’s flag quotes the Quranic passage, “Surely the Party of God are the victors.” In the case of Lebanon’s presidential elections, that motto appears to ring true.
David Daoud is an Arabic-Language Analyst at Foundation for Defense of Democracies.