When the clock strikes midnight!
At Midnight this Monday, President Aoun becomes Mr. Michel Aoun, a Lebanese citizen. This transition is the ancient Greeks’ greatest gift to humanity, a peaceful transition of power that does not involve familial inheritance.
I was always struck by that almost magical moment when a citizen becomes More. Nothing illustrates that better than every four or eight years when a US President flanked by a General holding the nuclear football, with the power to end life as we know it, becomes an ordinary citizen while another person becomes More. Indeed, at noon last January 20, 2020, President Trump became an ordinary mortal, while Mr. Biden became the President of the US.
In Lebanon, there is a customary commemoration, with a lot of pomp and official decorum, that celebrates that moment, enshrining democratic principles in a region with few such examples. Unfortunately, for the last two presidents, this has not happened. Each time a period of void marked the transfer of power, and no sitting president was present to welcome the elected one. The last time was in 1998, when President Elias Hrawi welcomed President Lahoud.
On October 31 at 11:59 PM, the mandate of President Aoun ends, and the country is abuzz about what could happen. Thus, to better understand what will happen on Monday, this article will explore the constitutional guidelines governing the transfer of power, the Council of Ministers’ role in a presidential void, and what President Aoun’s party could do to safeguard their hold on power.
Indeed, the President party believes that the only way to salvage the mandate of President Aoun and the catastrophic collapse it witnessed is by extending it for another mandate, helmed by Gebran Bassil, that will miraculously save Lebanon and end the crisis! Thus, President Aoun cannot simply walk away from the Presidency, transferring power to an opponent.
First, the presidential elections:
According to Article 49 of the Lebanese Constitution, the President of the Republic is elected by secret ballot, by a two-thirds majority of the votes cast in the Chamber of Deputies in the first round, and by an absolute majority in the second and following rounds. Article 73 further details the elections procedures, explaining that two months before the end of the mandate, the Chamber of Deputies shall be convened by its Speaker to elect a new president. And ten days before the end of the mandate, the Chamber shall meet automatically even if its Speaker does not convene it!
Those deadlines are now behind us, following several election sessions that were stopped after the first round when the two-third quorum was lost. No candidate has won a two-thirds or even an absolute majority of 65 votes. Thus, Lebanon will enter a presidential void this Tuesday, following a previous one, from 2014 to 2016.
Nevertheless, the Constitution is clear about any possible void in the Presidency. Article 62 clearly states, “Should there be a vacancy in the Presidency for any reason whatsoever, the Council of Ministers shall exercise the authority of the President by delegation.”
MP Gebran Bassil and President Aoun have been adamant that if there is no functioning government that has received the vote of confidence of the Chamber, the President’s powers cannot be transferred to a caretaker government. They both have threatened to take several steps to stop that.
It is important to note that the Constitution does not mention the need to have a functioning Council of Ministers (COM) or what to do in the case of a caretaker COM before transferring the Power of the President in the case of a presidential void. The only mention of the power of a resigned government is in article 64, clause 2, which specifies that the government shall not exercise its powers before it gains confidence nor after it has resigned or is considered resigned “except in the narrow sense of a caretaker government.”
Moreover, the Constitution is very clear about the dangers of a void when it clearly explains, in articles 74 and 75, that the Parliament is considered in automatic session when the presidential void occurs. Indeed, the Chamber cannot perform any legislative duties to elect the Head of the State without discussing any other act. The Constitution speaks in detail of the Parliament’s duties in case of a presidential void and how it should meet immediately to elect a president in case the President resigns or is dead. Moreover, if the Chamber is dissolved and no parliamentary elections are held within the constitutional limits, then the dissolution is null and void!
Nevertheless, MP Bassil and the President have threatened to act to stop a transfer of the presidential power to Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s caretaker government.
Thus, this article will explore the possible scenarios the President and his political team might take.
First, the most probable scenario. The President has publically stated that he will sign the decree accepting the resignation of the COM. Usually, the common practice is for the President to sign the cabinet’s resignation decree along with the decrees of nominating the Prime Minster after the binding consultations and the formation of the new government. (the President signs the first two alone, while the decree forming the government also needs the signature of the PM).
However, such a decision will not change much as the cabinet is already considered resigned. It cannot officially meet and can only exercise its power in a “narrow sense of a caretaker government.” Thus, in both cases, the government is limited in what it can do. However, the President’s team has also hinted that they will ask their Christian ministers not to attend or care to take any of the government business, removing the consociational umbrella from the resigned government. Again, a resigned government cannot meet, even when imbued with presidential powers. Therefore, having several Christian ministers not participating in any decisions can only deadlock the already glacial pace of public reforms and decision-making.
Second, given the above, other steps might be taken by the President’s party. Disregarding any nuclear options, such as refusing to step down or staying in the palace, the President’s team has floated several scenarios. Such as the nomination of an “emergency government,” military or civilians, to fill the executive void and inherit the power of the Presidency in the last few minutes of the presidential mandate. Constitutionally, the President does not have the power for such a step, as the post-Taef Constitution explicitly limits the power to nominate a new government to a decree signed by the President and the newly appointed Prime Minister.
Third, Lebanese political ingenuity knows no bound. And the next few days might witness some unexpected moves by different forces. It could take the form of widespread demonstrations, road closures, or popular procession to accompany the President on his trip back home from the Presidential palace. Once more, we are faced with a few days that could be filled with many surprises.
Nevertheless, President Aoun Mandate ends on Monday at midnight, and nothing can change that!
 Lebanese Constitution, Article 53, clause 4 and 5
 Monday, just before midnight.
 Lebanese Constitution Article 53, clause 4