Lebanese parliament in crisis fails to elect its president

BEIRUT – Lebanon’s parliament failed to elect a new president on Thursday as the majority of lawmakers voted blank and some withdrew.

Under Lebanon’s fragile sectarian power-sharing system, the country’s 128-member parliament votes for a president, who must be a Maronite Christian. It’s a tough threshold, and against the backdrop of the country’s struggling economy and deeply divided parliament, the unresolved question of Lebanon’s leadership has heightened concerns about government paralysis.

Outgoing President Michel Aoun’s six-year term ends on October 31. He is a retired military general and an ally of the Iranian-backed militant group Hezbollah and was elected in October 2016 after a two-year stalemate.

Aoun’s successor must be elected at a time when Lebanon is going through an economic crisis and the government is struggling to implement the structural reforms required for a bailout from the International Monetary Fund.

In recent months, no majority or consensus candidate in parliament has emerged, raising the prospect of further political paralysis and an impasse similar to that which preceded the election of the incumbent president.

Lebanon has also not had a full government since May and is currently operating on an interim basis under Prime Minister Najib Mikati.

One hundred and twenty-two lawmakers attended Thursday’s session and deposited their ballot papers in a wooden box in the assembly hall of parliament. More than half voted blank, while legislator Michel Mouawad, son of a former president and fierce opponent of Hezbollah, obtained 36 votes.

The remaining dozen votes were split between entrepreneur and philanthropist Salim Edde and protest votes, including one for Mahsa Amini, the 22-year-old Iranian woman who died after the Islamic Republic’s vice police arrested her, triggering protests.

Dozens of lawmakers left after Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri called for a recount, breaking the quorum required for the session. He did not announce the date of a new session.

Hezbollah’s senior lawmaker, Mohammad Raad, said parliamentary blocs in the crisis-hit country were in the “early stages” of seeking a president who would “bring stability to the country”.

“The blocs need to discuss and develop an understanding on a possible consensus candidate,” Raad told reporters.

Independent MP Halime Kaakour, meanwhile, criticized lawmakers for what she called a “negative calm without consensus”, fearing a prolonged delay in electing a new president.

“The Constitution says it’s a majority vote,” she told reporters. “I think it’s no longer a logical approach to try to achieve consensus in a country that continues to crumble.”

Most of the candidates tipped to be among the favorites did not receive any votes, including Sleiman Frangieh of the Marada party, a Hezbollah ally who calls Syrian President Bashar Assad a “friend and brother”.

Over the past three years, three-quarters of the population of the tiny Mediterranean nation have sunk into poverty, as the country’s infrastructure and public institutions continue to crumble. The Lebanese pound has lost 90% of its value against the dollar, decimating the purchasing power of millions of people struggling to cope with runaway inflation rates.

Lebanon has been struggling for more than two years to reform its inefficient and wasteful economy, tackle corruption and restructure its battered banking sector to reach a deal with the International Monetary Fund for a bailout package. The IMF recently criticized Lebanon for its slow progress.

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