BEIRUT: Lebanon's Constitution ensures continuity of the executive branch in the event of a presidential vacuum or the resignation of a Cabinet. Under the first scenario, the president's powers are passed to the Cabinet while in the second case, a resigned Cabinet continues to function in caretaker mode pending the formation of a new one.
However, the Constitution lacks clarity when it comes to the legislative branch. What happens if parliament's term expires and the government fails to organize elections? Can lawmakers continue to pass legislations, let alone meet and deliberate? Will Lebanon plunge into a power vacuum if the country's major political parties fail to reach an agreement over a new parliamentary electoral system before the upcoming polls?
In recent days, President Michel Aoun has made it clear that he will use his prerogatives to block elections based on the law adopted in the latest 2009 parliamentary polls and obstruct the extension of parliament's mandate even if it leads to a "vacuum" in the legislative branch.
The last time Lebanon flirted with a constitutional vacuum, Prime Minister Saad Hariri had to concede and endorse Aoun for the presidency, leading to the latter's election a few weeks later.
Hariri was, at the time, concerned that come elections time without a president, Lebanon would plunge into a complete power vacuum.
"Has anyone thought of what might happen when parliamentary elections take place and the Cabinet enters caretaker mode...in the absence of a president who can designate a prime minister to form a new Cabinet?" Hariri asked his supporters in a televised speech, moments before announcing that his parliamentary bloc will elect Aoun as president, "And what would happen if the absolute majority of the newly elected parliament refuses to elect a speaker before electing a president? What would happen to the country without a head of state, a prime minister and a speaker?"
For Hariri, vacuum in state institutions meant a new constitutional convention and a revamp of the Taif Accord; which was the ultimate goal behind Hezbollah's obstruction of the presidential election under the pretext that only Aoun, as the leader of the largest Christian parliamentary bloc, is worthy of the post.
Advocates of Hariri's move say the Future Movement had no choice at the time but to follow in the footsteps of Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea and support Aoun in order to derail Hezbollah's plan.
Once again, Aoun seems to be playing the same card. This time, however, the dynamics appear to be far more complicated.
On the one hand, Aoun, is seeking an electoral law that consolidates his Free Patriotic Movement's grip over Christian representation in Parliament in alliance with Geagea, who, on the other hand, is looking to cement his position as a strong Christian leader and the most worthy to succeed Aoun as head of state.
Geagea and Aoun's electoral gains will likely come at the expense of both Hariri's Future Movement and Progressive Socialist Party leader MP Walid Jumblatt's parliamentary blocs, landing the Christian alliance a third of the seats in the legislature, and consequently veto power.
While Hezbollah's representation in parliament is unlikely to be affected under any electoral law, the party, like the Future Movement and Jumblatt's Progressive Socialist Party, is wary of granting the Christian alliance veto power in Parliament, where the Shiites hold the post of speaker, as well as bolstering Geagea's position as a serious contender in the upcoming presidential election.
That said, Hezbollah might not be necessarily opposed to an agreement over a new parliamentary electoral system, despite the fact that the failure to reach one would serve the armed group's ultimate goal of plunging Lebanon into a constitutional vacuum, as skeptics argue.
An electoral system that ensures Hezbollah and its allies, including Aoun and Berri, secure a parliamentary majority at the expense of Hariri might represent a viable alternative for the party to dominate Lebanese politics-- at least for now, given its preoccupation in Syria.
These conflicting, yet intertwined agendas justify why talks have stalled this far but there is no guarantee that an agreement will be eventually reached. This would leave the door open to a variety of confrontational scenarios, including Aoun's proposal to hold a referendum over a new electoral law in the absence of a clear constitutional mechanism in this regard.
For now, Aoun and Hezbollah seem again, to hold the upper hand.
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