Has Hezbollah adopted a strategy of constructive ambiguity toward the presidential elections in Lebanon? Resorting to general and vague expressions that can be interpreted in multiple ways would allow it to maintain its distance from certain positions when necessary. Such an approach would also free it from obligations that could be imposed by these positions, giving it more room to maneuver.
Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah announced that his party has a preferred candidate for the presidency, but he did not reveal his name. Meanwhile, members of Hezbollah's parliamentary bloc and its allies cast blank ballots during the first session held to elect a president, on April 23. There were two candidates: Samir Geagea, head of the Lebanese Forces Party and the candidate of the March 14 coalition, and Henry Helou, candidate for the Democratic Gathering bloc, led by member of parliament (MP) Walid Jumblatt. Since both men failed to obtain the two-third majority (86 votes) needed to win, a second session had to be held. This required a quorum of two-thirds and a candidate receiving the support of half of all parliamentarians plus one, that is, 65 votes, to win.
Hezbollah's deputies and their allies in the Change and Reform bloc, headed by Michel Aoun, boycotted the second session, held on April 30, so the quorum of 86 parliamentarians was not achieved. The same scenario was repeated in the third session, on May 7, and the same is likely to occur in the next round. If so, it would mean that on May 25, the constitutional deadline for electing a president, the presidency will become vacant, unless the March 8 and March 14 coalitions can come to an agreement on a candidate acceptable to both of them.
A source close to Hezbollah who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity rejected allegations made by March 14 politicians and journalists that Aoun was not Hezbollah's preferred candidate. If he were, they argued, the party would have announced it and voted for him. The source said the March 8 coalition was committed to supporting Aoun's candidacy if Aoun himself were intent on running. He said Aoun was opposed to announcing his candidacy at the time, prior to an agreement between March 8 and the Future Movement that would ensure his victory in the race.
Concerning the negotiations being conducted in this regard between the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), led by Aoun, and the Future Movement, led by former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the source revealed that Hariri apparently did not put any conditions on supporting Aoun's candidacy during his April 29 Paris meeting with Aoun's son-in-law, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil. Rather, the source said, the talks focused on generalities, and Bassil affirmed the Aounist current's desire to expand the understanding signed in 2006 between the FPM and Hezbollah to other Lebanese parties, especially the Future Movement, the most prominent Sunni representatives in Lebanon.
The source close to Hezbollah ruled out Hariri supporting Aoun's candidacy, and this was confirmed by a source close to the Future Movement. Speaking to Al-Monitor, the source said Aoun was not a consensus candidate, but a fundamental pillar of the March 8 coalition and a close Hezbollah ally. Aoun supports Hezbollah's insistence on keeping its arms and fighting in Syria, which are both rejected by the Future Movement and its allies in the March 14 bloc.
While Hezbollah refuses to talk about alternative plans or potential candidates in the event Aoun abstains from presenting his candidacy, the source close to the party said that both sides, March 8 as well as March 14, know that neither is capable of obtaining victory for its own candidate without the other's cooperation. Thus, they must agree on a mutually acceptable presidential candidate, which raises the question: What are the requirements of a candidate acceptable to Hezbollah?
The source close to Hezbollah said that the first criterion is his position on resistance to Israeli occupation and aggression against Lebanon and thus Hezbollah's weapons. This was confirmed by Mohammed Raad, head of the Hezbollah parliamentary bloc, when he said on May 5, "We need a president of the republic who functions in harmony with the choice of his people in resistance and who can preserve the state's sovereignty." He added, "We do not want a president who would work to maintain sovereignty according to international and regional [calculations], rather we want a president who protects and supports the resistance."
Naim Qassem, Hezbollah deputy secretary-general, spoke on May 6 about his party's requirements for the next president, stating, "We consider that a lame-duck president without a stance [on the resistance] will not benefit Lebanon." He said that the president should be able to manage the country, creating a state of political and security stability, drafting an agreement between Lebanese political forces and investing in Lebanon's power, including its army, its people and its resistance. He added, "The president should be keen to build a state for its citizens, [and not work] according to current and secondary interests."
The source close to Hezbollah said that the party hopes for a president to be elected before the end of the constitutional deadline, rejecting allegations that the party and its allies are purposely disrupting the election by boycotting parliamentary sessions. He said that those causing the disruption are the ones who provoked the Lebanese by fielding a candidate who has a problematic past and is hostile to large groups of Lebanese from all sects, including Maronites — a pointed reference to Geagea. The source called for consensus around a president who can bring the different sects together and move the country toward a state of political and security stability.
While the source declined to mention names of candidates deemed acceptable by Hezbollah, sources from the March 8 bloc told Al-Monitor that among those the party could accept were former Minister Jean Obeid, army commander Jean Kahwaji and Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh. The source rejected assertions that the Lebanese election was linked to the Syrian presidential elections, the results of US-Iranian nuclear negotiations or an Iranian-Saudi understanding. He said the issue was an internal matter, requiring a national will and a Lebanese consensus, and should not wait for the results of foreign interventions or deals.
Hezbollah likely does not fear a presidential vacuum, given the existence of a national unity government in which it and its allies control a third of all ministries and which can carry out the tasks of the executive branch. Some believe that the 2007 scenario of a presidential vacuum will be repeated. That vacuum lasted for six months and was characterized by political and security tensions that led to clashes on May 7, 2008. The situation was resolved by the Doha Agreement, through which Gen. Michel Suleiman was elected president by consensus on May 25. This is what makes Kahwaji, the current army commander, a likely contender, along with the army's recent successes in foiling terrorist networks, putting an end to the security chaos in Tripoli and having the trust of Hezbollah. The March 14 bloc, in particular the Future Movement, however, has accused the army of siding with Hezbollah. It claims that the army has intensified operations in Sunni areas in the north, Sidon and the Bekaa Valley while ignoring the movement of Hezbollah fighters to Syria.
Hezbollah likely fears the election of another president like Suleiman, who was appointed commander of the army during Syria's tutelage over Lebanon and had a close relationship with the Syrian regime. Although elected as a result of the Doha Agreement, it was with the consent and support of Syria and its allies in Lebanon. Hezbollah, however, has accused Suleiman of siding with the March 14 bloc and allying with the axis hostile to Syria and Hezbollah since the outbreak of the Syrian war. Suleiman has criticized Hezbollah's military interference in Syria on several occasions. Moreover, this past March, he described Hezbollah's "army, people, resistance" mantra, incorporated in previous ministerial statements, as "inflexible."
Of note, the March 8 coalition holds 57 seats in parliament out of a total of 128, compared to 53 for the March 15 coalition and 18 for the Democratic Gathering bloc and centrist and independent MPs.