Lebanon Pulse

Lebanon to poll Christians on choice for president

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Article Summary
The leaders of Lebanon's main Christian factions have agreed on a proposal by Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun to poll Lebanese Christians on their favored presidential candidate.

Ever since the presidential vacuum started on May 25, 2014, Lebanese Christian political circles seem to be striving to find an innovative solution to the crisis. Their latest effort is a joint political-ecclesiastical proposal to poll Lebanon’s Christian communities on the Maronite candidate that would garner the largest proportion of supporters among Christians.

Talk of the idea first emerged during a May 15 press conference held by the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, Michel Aoun, who put forth a number of proposals to overcome the presidential vacuum. Amid the proposals was a general public opinion poll to identify the person with the greatest Christian popular support.

Two weeks later, on June 2, the leader of the Lebanese Forces, Samir Geagea, visited Aoun at his residence, to announce the signing of a memorandum of intent between the two, culminating a series of indirect negotiations between them after a quarter century of hostility and enmity.

During his visit to Aoun, Geagea was asked his opinion concerning Aoun’s proposals about the presidential vacuum. Geagea replied that he did not mind the holding of a Christian public opinion poll regarding that issue in particular. Thus, it seemed as if the two largest Christian factions were in agreement on the idea, giving the impression that the proposal was being seriously considered.

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One of the individuals most involved in this effort is Lebanese parliamentarian and secretary general of Aoun’s parliamentary bloc, Ibrahim Kanaan, who for months represented Aoun in negotiations with Geagea and subsequently drafted the memorandum announced by the two parties. Kanaan spoke with Al-Monitor about the poll proposal as a means to overcome the impasse.

He indicated that the idea was always on the table but not necessarily as a procedure that could lead to electing a president. However, Aoun made it part of his official proposals for reaching a solution, allowing for the convention that the Lebanese president must be a Maronite. But as the president is elected by parliament, whose members are elected in a way that does not give fair political representation to Christians, a president elected this way will not, in fact, fully represent the wishes of the country’s Christian community.

The current Lebanese parliament suffers from two major flaws in terms of its eligibility to elect a president. First, it was elected in 2009 through an electoral law that geographically divided districts in such a manner that all Christian factions agree did not provide fair and accurate representation to Christians, and gave Muslims the final say in electing Christian parliament members.

In his interview with Al-Monitor, Kanaan added that the second and most flagrant flaw is that the term of this parliament expired in June 2013, rendering it unqualified to elect a successor to President Michel Suleiman, whose term ended May 25, 2014. But a majority of parliament members prevented the holding of new general parliamentary elections by refusing to approve a new electoral law that safeguards fair representation for Christians and extending their own term until June 2017.

As a result, those parliament members — who were initially elected under a law that does not fairly represent Christians, and who illegally and unconstitutionally extended their own terms in office and imposed themselves upon the country for more than 13 additional months — were now the presumed electorate of a new president. Aoun’s bloc rejects this situation and is constantly trying to find constitutional and legal solutions to remedy it, Kanaan said.

He added, “Geagea joined us in adopting our proposal aimed at finding a practical solution to this dilemma, subsequently agreeing to the idea of conducting an opinion poll, for the implementation of which we began preparing scientific and operational studies. For example, we began searching for private companies with a high degree of credibility to organize the poll. We then began studying the statistical sample that the poll must include. It shall be a large one that includes several thousand Christian citizens, making the poll larger than a regular survey but smaller than a universal referendum.”

A question arises here: Will the other factions accept such a proposal? In that regard, Kanaan said, “We have reached out to all Christian political forces without exception, with the vast majority thereof expressing support, while some of them voiced technical concerns, which we took into consideration. Among these, for example, was that the poll be conducted by more than one company, so the results would come from a multitude of sources, which would exponentially increase the size of the Christian sample to be surveyed.”

Kanaan added, “We have received clear support for the idea from Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Bechara Boutros al-Rahi, who has been keeping abreast of the practical steps toward making the idea a reality.”

Yet the central question remains: How can poll results be transformed into a clear and practical implementation mechanism leading to the election of a new Lebanese president? Here, Kanaan indicated that the issue will not be easy to reconcile. However, according to him, poll results that receive the blessing and support of the Maronite patriarchate would serve to put pressure upon Lebanese parliamentarians and political factions, as well as serve to thwart foreign attempts to interfere in the country’s presidential elections by trying to impose a candidate who does not garner Lebanese popular support, particularly among the Christian community. At the end of the day, such a poll would also highlight the will of all Lebanese, irrespective of their religion.

Furthermore, according to Kanaan, the poll ideally will convince other factions of the worthiness of whomever the results favored and lead to them voting for that candidate. Such an outcome would be a small breakthrough amid the sharp Lebanese divisions that mirror larger regional divisions in the Middle East. Kanaan affirmed his political faction was well aware of these divisions and would continue to strive to overcome them without succumbing to foreign intervention or remaining under the thumb of the ongoing crisis.

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Found in: samir geagea, presidential elections, michel aoun, lebanon government, lebanese politics, lebanese parliament, christians

Jean Aziz is a columnist at the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar, a contributor for Al-Monitor's Lebanon Pulse and the host of a weekly political talk show on OTV, a Lebanese television station. He teaches communications at the American University of Technology and the Université Saint-Esprit De Kaslik in Lebanon. On Twitter: @JeanAziz1

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