Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati walked up the steps of the Presidential Palace in Baabda victorious, securing, for a fourth time, the premiership after garnering the most votes during parliamentary consultations on Thursday, June 23.
Mikati may have only received 54 out of the 128 possible votes as the parliamentary blocs decided who they believed should lead the first government since the May 15 parliamentary elections ushered in Lebanon’s new politicians, but that was more than enough to secure his position.
The next highest number of votes went to no one after 46 MPs refused to name a future leader of the government. Mikati’s main opponent in the vote, Nawaf Salam, a judge in the International Court of Justice, only received 25 votes.
“I say thank you to those who named me. And thank you also to those who did not recommend me, because they all exercised their role in a democratic way,” Mikati stated after being tasked to form a government. “Let us all cooperate today to save our homeland and extricate our people from what is hounding them because the responsibility to rescue is a collective responsibility and is not the responsibility of an individual.”
However, analysts are not optimistic that Mikati will be able to form a government in the short time that he has before President Michel Aoun’s term ends in October. His failure to do so would open up the possibility that Lebanon will be plunged into a political crisis on top of the worsening economic crisis.
“Mikati knows that he will not be able to form a government now,” Michael Young, a senior editor at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, told NOW. “He will try but it is unlikely that he will be able to form one. What he wants to do, he thinks that if there is no government, as he believes is likely, at least let him get the support of a majority of MPs to relegitimize the caretaker government he leads now.”
The great divide
Mikati most recently formed his new government on September 10, 2021, after former Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced that he would no longer be attempting to form a government amid disagreements with Aoun over the size and makeup of the government.
When Mikati was tapped to form the government, he was not expected to create a cabinet that would drastically change the country as elections were less than a year away and he was acting as more of a stabilizer for Lebanon as it continued to grapple with the ongoing economic crisis.
While the government did have some technocratic elements to it, it still primarily consisted of the same politically affiliated individuals that the previous governments contained.
Now that elections have passed, there is more of an opportunity to form a government that is more active in tackling the crisis and implementing reforms.
Hariri may have been many ministers’ first choice in the past, but since the former PM retired from political life in January 2022, there were few clear choices outside of Mikati as to who could effectively lead the country.
“Today, who can be an effective prime minister in Lebanon?” Young asked, “Or an effective prime minister without broad political support in the political class? Especially support from Hezbollah.”
With few options, Mikati, who was already leading a government, became the frontrunner and ultimately prevailed.
Salam, Mikati’s main opponent during the consultations, initially seemed like a serious contender for the premiership. His chances quickly dwindled, however, after Samir Geagea, the head of the Lebanese Forces, announced that they would not name anyone.
Salam also did not have any support from the Shiite MPs.
“He did not have Shiite support and none of the Christian parties endorsed him, so how does he become prime minister under such circumstances,” Young said.
Now, Mikati has the daunting task of forming a new government that can ensure the stability of the country while leading it out of economic collapse.
“[Government formation] will take a long time because those parties will then need to vote for the new government in Parliament,” Kristof Kleemann, head of the Fredrich Naumann Foundation’s Beirut office, told NOW. “They will try to get the most out of it and there will be a lot of horse-trading going on and I think that the government formation will take quite a while until all of the parties that could be part of the government are satisfied with the ministries that they get.”
Not everyone is interested in being part of the government, though, with Walid Joumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party, saying that they will not be part of the new cabinet and the Christian Lebanese Forces also hinting that they will not take part.
Would he prefer to lead the present caretaker government or would he prefer to lead a government that is made up of all of the different political forces that is going to be divided in not even a matter of months but a matter of weeks because everyone is going to be divided over the presidency? Mikati himself may not be that enthusiastic about forming a government at this point given that any government has to resign given the presidential election.
On top of this, the newly elected “change” MPs are also not interested in being part of a government headed by Mikati, someone that they view as being part of the political establishment and incapable of implementing reforms.
“In one way or another, Mikati will return back to the same political backing which will force certain conditions that will hinder any change agenda,” Ibrahim Mneimneh, an opposition MP in the Beirut II district, told NOW. “He might be forced by the IMF to push for certain reforms, but he can always say that the existing powers in the Parliament didn’t agree to these [reforms].”
The opposition MPs acknowledge that Mikati might be able to provide stability, but argue that the country does not need stability because that would just mean “more of the same policies, whether fiscal or economical, that have put the country to the ground.”
There is also pressure coming from abroad to form a government quickly to keep the country from further collapsing, but Mikati may not want to put much effort into forming a government when it is likely going to have to resign after a new president is elected.
“Mikati wants to show the international community, in particular the French, that he’s serious,” Young explained.
“But there’s another side that says what’s the point of putting tremendous effort into forming a government that’s going to resign anyway come October? He may just figure let’s go with what we have now, let’s try and build a consensus around a president and then I can come back as a much stronger prime minister.”
In addition to this, even if Mikati can form a unified government, it would soon become deeply divided as presidential elections draw closer and parties begin taking sides over who should be the one to replace Aoun,
“It becomes a question of what Mikati would want to lead,” Young stated.
“Would he prefer to lead the present caretaker government or would he prefer to lead a government that is made up of all of the different political forces that is going to be divided in not even a matter of months but a matter of weeks because everyone is going to be divided over the presidency? Mikati himself may not be that enthusiastic about forming a government at this point given that any government has to resign given the presidential election.”
If Mikati is unable to form a government before the presidential election, the country will be thrown into further distress. It is clear from the divisions in Parliament that a president will not be elected quickly, leaving the country without a figurehead and a government.
Racing against the clock
Lebanon is not known for having speedy government formations. In fact, they often take months, with the most recent government taking over a year to be finalized.
This makes it highly improbable that anyone will be able to do so in the four remaining months of Aoun’s term in office.
Young argued that there was little to no chance of any government being formed in this time, with Mneimneh being just as pessimistic.
“From previous experiences, we know that the political powers are not very much abiding by any deadlines,” the MP stated. “Given how they behave and how they prioritize their interests over the people’s interests, I think they just might [fail to form a government].”
Kleemann is slightly more optimistic, saying that Mikati might be able to form a government in time, but it will most likely be right before time runs out.
“I expect quite a dragging situation also given the fact that Mikati knows that his government needs to somehow secure a majority in Parliament and, given that the Parliament is so split, it will not be easy to get this majority of 65 votes,” he said. “That leads to the fact that the government formation needs to be extremely well prepared and will take some time.”
There is also a potential third option if it looks like Mikati will not be able to form a government.
Aoun could have his term extended past its expiry date. This is something that Aoun’s party, the Christian Free Patriotic Movement, could want as it would allow more time to form a government and to build consensus around their presidential candidate, Gebran Bassil, Aoun’s son-in-law.
But extending his term requires two-thirds of MPs to vote in favor of the motion, which is also unlikely. Given the deep divisions in Parliament and the lack of any clear majority, they would almost certainly fall short of the necessary votes.
What one element that could be to kind of speed up the government formation process, once they have agreed on a government, is that they would then pressure some of the MPs saying that now we have a government so take it or leave it. If you don’t vote for it, given the situation of the country, you will be responsible for the further downfall of the country.
Knowing this, the FPM might push for important ministries during the government formation process in order to secure power after Aoun leaves office, leaving a vacuum that could take time to fill.
“The FPM will try to push for important ministries now in the current government so that Bassil could act as a de facto president no matter what might happen in the presidential elections,” Kleemann explained.
In the event that a government is formed, Mikati would only need a simple majority in Parliament, 64 votes, in order to secure a vote of confidence and give the government constitutional legitimacy.
This could prove a challenging task as the Lebanese Forces, which refused to name anyone during consultations. The party is staunchly opposed to Hezbollah and its allies, whom Mikati is often seen as being close to, would probably not vote to approve the government, instantly losing Mikati 20 votes.
However, this is where Mikati’s ties to Hezbollah could benefit him.
When it came to voting for the Speaker of Parliament and Deputy Speaker of Parliament, Hezbollah and its parliamentary bloc were able to secure the necessary votes to ensure that Nabih Berri, who heads the Shiite Amal Movement, was reelected as the head of Parliament, a position that he has held since 1992. They also secured Elias Bou Saab, a member of the FPM, an ally of Hezbollah, as his deputy.
“Hezbollah and its allies, in the March 8 camp, have, until now, looking at the election of the Speaker [of Parliament] and Deputy Speaker [of Parliament], played it out pretty smartly given that they have lost seats in the elections,” Kleemann stated.
“What one element that could be to kind of speed up the government formation process, once they have agreed on a government, is that they would then pressure some of the MPs saying that now we have a government so take it or leave it. If you don’t vote for it, given the situation of the country, you will be responsible for the further downfall of the country.”
Without a government and with Aoun leaving office, a political and constitutional crisis would ensue, likely further exacerbating the devastating economic crisis.
According to Article 62 of the Lebanese Constitution, should there be a vacancy in the presidency, then the cabinet will take over the role by delegation until a new president is elected. However, the Consitution does not say what should happen if there is a vacancy in the presidency and the government is also resigned.
“No one wants to be blamed for putting the country into further distress,” Kleemann added. “That’s why, tactically speaking, it was a mistake by the Lebanese Forces not to nominate anyone.”
In the event that this worst-case scenario happened, Mneimneh believes that it could lead to a resurgence in protests against the political establishment for its nearly three years of failure at tackling the economic crisis, and the newly added failure at performing the simple task of creating a new cabinet.
“What we know is that if they remain hindering the democratic process by forming a new cabinet and electing a new president then we will probably go down to the streets again,” Mneimneh said. “The country cannot wait anymore.”
Nicholas Frakes is a multimedia journalist with @NOW_leb. He tweets @nicfrakesjourno.