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Ghosts in the ballot box: Lebanon's presidential election

Ghosts of Lebanon's civil war hung over the first round of voting in the country's presidential election on Wednesday, when several ministers cast ballots bearing the names of men killed by one of the contest's leading candidates during the 15-year conflict.

Samir Geagea, whose Lebanese Forces (LF) party emerged from a wartime militia of the same name and is now the most prominent Christian component of the anti-Hezbollah and anti-Assad March 14 alliance, needed the support of two thirds of the 128 ministers to win. He convinced only 48 of them, with the rest of the vote split between the seven invalid ballots, 52 blank ones submitted by the opposing March 8 alliance, and 16 for a centrist candidate, Henry Helou. A rival Christian candidate, Amine Gemayel received 1 vote, and 4 MPs were absent.

The unusually high turnout was the source of jokes at the start of the session, with Speaker Nabih Berri saying "Long time, no see" to some of the less familiar faces as he began the proceedings, but was undermined immediately after the inconclusive end to the first round of voting, when all but four of the March 8 ministers left the room in unison, in an apparent bid to scupper the quorum required to continue. MPs will meet again for a second round next week.

Geagea, or "al-Hakim" (the doctor, or the wise one), as he is known to many of his followers, spent 11 years in solitary confinement after being convicted for the assassination or attempted assassination of several senior politicians in 1994, including former Prime Minister Rashid Karami. A staunch critic of Syria's 29-year occupation of Lebanon, he was granted amnesty in 2005 after the Cedar Revolution saw the withdrawal of Hafez al-Assad's troops. He maintains his innocence, and is the only wartime leader to have been tried for his crimes – a trial over whose integrity Amnesty International has expressed concerns.

The symbolic resurrection of the war's victims in the context of the election of the country's most senior representative demonstrates just how deep divisions run in Lebanese politics, and how hollow the talk (from all sides) of the need for a consensus candidate really was in the run-up to the vote. But what really short-circuited the vote was March 8's perhaps canny refusal to play along with the rules of the political game. In their failure (whether deliberate or not) to put forward their own official candidate to rival Geagea, and in their decision to walk out, they effectively illegitimised the whole contest, leaving the LF leader shouting in the dark.

As Strida Geagea – herself an MP and also Samir's wife – said after the vote: "It would have been better if a clear candidate was running against us." After all, there's little glory in winning a one-horse race, and even less in losing one.

March 14 itself waited until the last minute to officially confirm that Geagea was its man, and had until that point announced only its resolve to back a single candidate, presumably to put on a strong front against March 8. They may have cornered themselves with their own resolve, however, because Geagea was quick to announce his candidacy and quicker still to announce that he had the support of anyone who might have been considered a potential internal rival. Even when Geagea publicly announced that Saad Hariri, the son of the alliance's symbolic figurehead (former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005) had offered him personal assurances of his support, he did so before Hariri's own office were willing to confirm it to the press. March 14 had little choice but to endorse him, because to acquiesce would have appeared institutionally weak, and to go against him would have split the vote.

When their "strong" candidate fell short of the mark on Wednesday, his subsequent claim that the inconclusive ten-minute vote was "a major victory for democracy" therefore struck an unconvincing note. To many, the stalemate looks more like democracy at its most dysfunctional and indecisive. Worse still, it is all too familiar, not only with regard to the impasse that has marked Lebanese politics for months, but also historically, with one local reporter this week noting the uncanny continued relevance of bleak observations he made about the 1970 election in an article at the start of his career.

Parliament will reconvene for its second round of voting on April 30, and in the meantime the parties will try and renegotiate over their ever-elusive compromise candidate. But with few observers anticipating a breakthrough, and the incumbent president Michel Sleiman's term now in its final month, the prospect of a power vacuum looms all too large at a time when Lebanon can ill-afford such uncertainty.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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