Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Letter from Lebanon: Scheduled Fall Presidential Elections in Lebanon Presage New Political Faces and Policies

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Letter from Lebanon: Scheduled Fall Presidential Elections in Lebanon Presage New Political Faces and Policies

Article excerpt

LETTER FROM LEBANON: Scheduled Fall Presidential Elections in Lebanon Presage New Political Faces and Policies

Presidential elections are scheduled to take place in Lebanon sometime in the two-month period between Sept. 21 and Nov. 21, which is the constitutional period for the Parliament to elect a new president. Unlike 1995, the year when current President Elias Hrawi's term was extended for three years, odds are for a change. Both diplomatic and Lebanese political analysts say there is little chance for any renewal of Hrawi's mandate.

Instead, there is a public outcry for restoring the democratic process in Lebanon. The municipal elections of last spring were a major turning point in that regard, setting the scene for a normal presidential election too.

On various occasions the United States, through President Bill Clinton, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former Ambassador Richard Jones, have called for normal and free presidential, as well as municipal, elections in Lebanon and insisted on the need for a change at the highest level of the state. This clear message did not go unheard by the Syrian regime, which is the primary "electoral power" in Lebanon.

The announcement of a first-ever visit by Syrian President Hafez al-Assad to Lebanon this fall (the precise date has not yet been set) took all Lebanon by surprise -- including President Hrawi, according to his entourage. This is because Syria has never officially recognized Lebanon's independence, and does not have formal diplomatic relations with its neighbor.

Political analysts and journalists think the visit will effectively mean official recognition by the Damascus regime of Lebanon's sovereignty. Some go beyond that analysis, and view it as a visit destined to honor and thank President Hrawi for his role in developing and tightening Lebanese-Syrian "privileged relations" through a series of treaties meant to formalize full cooperation between the two countries on various economic, cultural and political levels. According to many analysts, President Assad also will want to make sure that the next Lebanese president follows that path and remains a faithful ally to the Syrian regime.

On the internal level, the Lebanese presidential election is supposed to implement a major step forward in post-war Lebanese reconstruction and state building, despite the fact that Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri is almost certain to remain at his post.

After a nine-year term, President Hrawi will be leaving office amidst an economic recession and a depressed market, fed by news of routine corrupt practices at the highest government levels.

There is a public outcry for restoring the democratic process.

That is a major reason why opinion polls during the winter and spring of 1998 showed General Emile Lahoud, the commander-in-chief of the army, as the favorite candidate of the Lebanese people, regardless of their religious or political affiliations.

Lahoud's personal integrity and his success in rebuilding a once torn-apart and divided army, and in keeping it away from political interference, have been viewed as his main assets. But the election of the head of the Lebanese Armed Forces as the president needs an amendment to the Lebanese constitution.

Article 49 of the constitution prevents any "first category functionary" from running for president unless that official vacated his job at least two years earlier. …

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