BEIRUT: A year on, it’s hard to argue that President Michel Aoun hasn’t made swift work through promises made in his inaugural speech 365 days ago, despite being a divisive choice for the post at the time. As he was sworn in, Aoun said that Lebanon’s “first obligation was to adopt an electoral law that ensures fair representation, prior to the next elections.”
Lawmakers and officials passed a new vote law in June, ending nearly eight years of wrangling. The new system uses proportional representation for the first time in the country’s history. Despite some accusations of gerrymandering and seat-moving between districts for political gains, it is a new system that was agreed without the help of outside influence. Also, the new – and still untested – electoral law makes predicting outcomes and voting patterns more difficult for major parties.
Case in point, few electoral alliances have been announced or formed, even as electoral rhetoric has started to ramp up ahead of the spring 2018 election day. “It is way too early and we honestly do not know because these elections are not going to be able to be predicted like the ones before,” a source within a leading political party told The Daily Star.
The second point in the former Army general’s oath on Oct. 31, 2016 was that “the first of the pillar of security is national unity.”
Even as Lebanon did not have a president for over two years prior to Aoun’s appointment, security in the country had stabilized after the difficult years between 2011 and early 2014 and remained relatively calm compared to the region.
Also under Aoun was the Army’s successful operation against Daesh (ISIS) on the northeast border in August that drove the militant group out of the country.
The offensive concluded a three-year saga that began with the border town of Arsal falling to Daesh militants and ended with a robust Army offensive, with minimal casualties, successfully routing the militant forces from the country. It also ended with the recovery of the remains of 10 Lebanese servicemen, eight of whom had been killed by Daesh sometime after they were kidnapped in 2014.
Prime Minister Saad Hariri formed a national unity government shortly after Aoun took office – in stark contrast to the 10 months it took to form a government under the previous administration.
Parliament and Cabinet’s continuous work is testament to Aoun’s record and the prevailing national unity. However, it has been telling that the usual underlying rhetorical political salvos fired between camps have risen from some of the lowest levels the country had seen in years to worrying heights even when measured against darker periods past.
The unlikely bedfellows of Aoun and Hariri buried the hatchet after a yearslong cold war. Their cooperation has since played a large role in reactivating state institutions and passing laws – including the electoral bill. However, the sense of national unity that helped form a nearly all-inclusive government – save the self-declared opposition Kataeb Party – has been threatened.
This brings us to Aoun’s next declaration: the “necessity to dissociate Lebanon from external conflicts, while remaining committed to the Charter of the League of Arab States, and in particular Article 8 thereof, and adopting an independent foreign policy based on Lebanon’s higher interest and the respect of international law, in view of safeguarding the country as an oasis of peace, stability and convergence.”
Regarding the Syrian war and its impact on Lebanon’s economy, stability and safety, Aoun said he would work on “ensuring a quick return for the Syrian refugees to their homeland ... in cooperation with the concerned states and authorities, and in a responsible coordination with the U.N.” Political divisions have deepened over this issue and the correct way to go about the “safe return” of refugees. This extends to the treatment of the estimated 450,000 Palestinian refugees stripped of their homeland years ago and still living in Lebanon.
Some sides – particularly Hezbollah, Amal Movement, Marada Movement – have called for direct contact with Damascus over the issue. However, others – mainly the Lebanese Forces and Future Movement – have called for coordination with the United Nations and ruled out any direct contact with Syria.