Lebanon to end stalemate but political divisions run deep
BEIRUT - Lebanon's parliament is set to end more than two years of stalemate on Monday by electing ex-general Michel Aoun as president, but the vote is unlikely to heal deep political divisions.
Aoun, a Christian former army chief, is allied with the powerful Iran-backed Hezbollah movement whose forces are fighting in Syria alongside President Bashar al-Assad's government.
But his election has been made possible by the surprise endorsement of former prime minister Saad Hariri, a fierce opponent of Syria's government and head of a bloc that is Hezbollah's key rival and has received regional support from Saudi Arabia.
So, while a deal has been made on the country's next president, analysts say Lebanon's key political blocs still disagree on almost everything else.
Aoun is expected to nominate Hariri to return as prime minister, but with little consensus in the political landscape, the process of forming a government is likely to be long and arduous.
"Aoun's election is not a magic wand," said Sahar Atrache, a researcher at the International Crisis Group think tank.
"Certainly the presidential vacancy will end, but it doesn't solve the political crisis, or the stagnant political institutions or the major divisions over domestic and foreign issues, particularly the war in Syria," she said.
Under a power-sharing agreement, Lebanon's presidency is reserved for a Maronite Christian while the prime minister is a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament is a Shiite Muslim.
The presidency has been vacant since May 2014 when Michel Sleiman's mandate expired.
Since then, parliament has held 45 failed sessions to elect a successor, each time failing to make quorum.
Each session was boycotted by the 20 members of Aoun's parliamentary bloc who insisted he be elected, with Hezbollah also keeping its 13 members away as a show of support.
Monday's session is expected to involve two votes, with Aoun unlikely to win the two-thirds majority necessary to avoid a second round.
The additional round only requires him to win a 50 percent plus one majority, which now looks assured.
The vote is set to end a void that has been seen as a reflection of a broader malaise: a divided polity with government institutions that have been impotent in the face of challenges including a garbage collection crisis.
The economy meanwhile has struggled with regional and domestic instability and already strained resources have been tested by an influx of more than a million Syrian refugees.
"Given what we know from history and the profiles of the personalities that have come together and the overall political climate, nothing guarantees any progress from filling the vacancy," said Carol Sharabati, a political science professor at the Jesuit University in Beirut.
"We're looking at an alliance of interest, in which each party has their demands. Aoun wants the presidency at any cost, and Hariri wants to rebuild his crumbling political bloc," added Sharabati.
"Will the personal agendas of each party allow them to build a common, long-term strategy, given that their alliance is not formed on common ground?"
Atrache said the agreement could not be described as a "political alliance," and said it would "prove difficult to maintain because they don't agree on how to share power."
The track record of recent years does not bode well: the last government led by Hariri, between 2009 and 2011, was hamstrung by tensions with Hezbollah's bloc which eventually brought it down.
And after going into self-imposed exile, Hariri's influence has waned domestically even as his personal finances have taken a hit because key backer Saudi Arabia is no longer willing to pump aid into Lebanon to shore up its influence.
Last time Hariri formed a government, it took five months, and the incumbent, Tamam Salam, spent 10 months crafting a national unity cabinet, which has nonetheless proved largely impotent.
"We can't rule out the possibility that we'll have a president, a prime minister without a government and a suspended parliament" until the next legislative election, Sharabati said.
Parliament has twice extended its mandate without holding elections because of disagreements over a new electoral law, with the next vote scheduled for mid-2017.
Parliament speaker Nabih Berri, who opposes Aoun's election, has already said he expects the formation of a new government to take five to six months.
But even if a government is formed, it will be full of "contradictions, and the question is whether it will be able, even partially, to restore institutions and put them back on track," said Atrache.
"We can't expect miracles."