World

Lebanese politicians fail in yet another attempt to elect president

Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri casts his vote (Hassan Ammar/AP)
Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri casts his vote (Hassan Ammar/AP) Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri casts his vote (Hassan Ammar/AP)

Lebanese politicians have failed in yet another attempt to elect a president and break a seven-month power vacuum in the tiny Mediterranean country.

The parliamentary session – the 12th bid to pick a president – broke down after the bloc led by the powerful political party and militant group Hezbollah withdrew following the first round of voting, breaking the quorum.

Hezbollah’s preferred candidate, Sleiman Frangieh, the scion of a political family close to the ruling Assad family in Syria, trailed behind his main rival, Jihad Azour, a former finance minister and senior official with the International Monetary Fund, in the first round of voting.

Lebanon Presidential Election
Lebanon Presidential Election Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri opens the session to elect a president (Hassan Ammar/AP)

Mr Azour, who is supported by the opposition to Hezbollah and some of its nominal allies, received 59 votes against Mr Frangieh’s 51, while 18 politicians cast blank ballots, protest votes or voted for minority candidates.

However, Mr Azour failed to reach the two-thirds majority needed to win in the first round.

The meeting came after 11 previous sessions by the parliament – the last of which was held in January – failed to elect a replacement for President Michel Aoun, a Hezbollah ally, whose term ended in late October.

Mr Azour has the backing of the country’s largest Christian political parties, the Free Patriotic Movement, which has been allied with Hezbollah since 2006, and the Lebanese Forces party, an opponent to Hezbollah.

Under Lebanon’s complex power-sharing agreement, the country’s president has to be a Maronite Christian, the parliament speaker a Shiite Muslim and the prime minister a Sunni.

Lebanon Presidential Election
Lebanon Presidential Election Politician Michel Moussa casts his vote (Hassan Ammar/AP)

Mr Azour is also backed by the majority of Druze legislators and some Sunni Muslims, while Shiite members of parliament have overwhelmingly backed Mr Frangieh.

The new president’s most pressing task will be to get the nation of six million people, including more than one million Syrian refugees, out of an unprecedented economic crisis that began in October 2019.

The meltdown is rooted in decades of corruption and mismanagement by the country’s political class that has ruled Lebanon since the 1975-90 civil war ended.

Clinching a bailout deal with the IMF – Mr Azour’s current employer – is seen as key to Lebanon’s recovery.

Mr Azour took a leave of absence from his post as regional director for the organisation upon announcing his candidacy.

Mr Azour’s supporters accused Hezbollah and its allies of blocking the democratic process.

“This group does not believe in democracy,” said Lebanese Forces politician Fadi Karam.

Independent Waddah Sadek said: “Nobody can nominate a candidate and say it’s either them or nobody else.”

Lebanon Presidential Election
Lebanon Presidential Election Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri casts his vote (Hassan Ammar/AP)

Hezbollah has often criticised opposing candidates as divisive and “confrontational”, though Mr Azour has said he would work to bring together rival political groups and end the economic crisis.

“Who better than Jihad Azour to seal the deal with the IMF that can help guarantee us international investment,” Mr Sadek said.

Hezbollah politician Hussein Haj Hassan claimed Mr Azour and those around him have no political programme and called for a “real national dialogue away from the auctioneering and intimidation”.

Earlier this week, Mr Frangieh said he is not imposing himself but is seeking “a national consensus or majority”.

Not all politicians opposed to Hezbollah support Mr Azour’s candidacy and some see him as representing sectarian parties.

Ibrahim Mneimneh said the one thing that many legislators who, like him, ran on anti-establishment platforms agree on is their opposition to Mr Frangieh.

Michel Douaihy, another independent politicians, said Mr Azour had not been the first choice of most independents, but that his candidacy “is the art of compromise at its best”.

No date has been set for a 13th attempt to elect a president.