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Photo: Reuters
Michel Aoun
Photo: Reuters
Lebanon elects Hezbollah-backed president
After a 29-month presidential vacuum, Lebanese parliament elects former army commander Michel Aoun as president; under political deal, Saudi-backed Sunni Muslim leader Saad al-Hariri expected to become prime minister.

BEIRUT - The Lebanese parliament elected former army commander and strong ally of the militant group Hezbollah Michel Aoun as president on Monday, ending a 29-month presidential vacuum as part of a political deal that is expected to make Sunni Muslim leader Saad al-Hariri prime minister.

 

 

Aoun, 81, secured a simple majority of votes in the house after a chaotic session that saw several rounds of voting because extra ballots appeared in the ballot box each time.

 

He failed to get elected by a two thirds majority in the first round, as had been widely expected, but later managed to garner 83 votes out of 127 lawmakers present at the session, well above the absolute majority of 65 needed to win.

 

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Members of parliament broke out in thunderous applause after Aoun finally was declared president by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri. His supporters across the country erupted in cheers as they watched the proceedings on huge screens set up in the streets. Fireworks echoed across Beirut and brief celebratory gunfire could also be heard in the capital. Aoun, an MP, was shown smiling in his seat.

 

The Lebanese presidency is reserved for a Maronite Christian in the country's sectarian power-sharing system.

 

Aoun's election is seen by many as a clear victory for the pro-Iranian axis in the Middle East, giving a boost to Hezbollah and the Shiite Lebanese group's ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad.

 

Lebanon has been without a head of state for over two years after President Michel Suleiman stepped down at the end of his term in May 2014. Since then, 45 sessions to elect a new leader have failed due to political infighting that led to of a lack of quorum as Aoun's block and allied Hezbollah lawmakers boycotted the sessions because his election was not guaranteed.

 

Aoun meets with Hezbollah leader Nasrallah (Photo: AP)
Aoun meets with Hezbollah leader Nasrallah (Photo: AP)

  

In the end, it took an about-face by former prime minister Hariri, who formally endorsed Aoun for president last week—reportedly in exchange for Aoun promising him the position of prime minister.
 

Hariri's decision to endorse Aoun marked a major political concession reflecting the diminished role of Saudi Arabia in Lebanon. Saudi had backed Hariri and his allies through years of political struggle with Hezbollah and its allies.

 

Hariri's own financial misfortunes have also played a big part in bringing about the breakthrough. His political network in Lebanon was hit by a cash crunch caused by financial troubles at his Saudi-based construction firm, Saudi Oger.

 

Analysts say the position of prime minister, which he previously held from 2009 to 2011, should help him shore up his support ahead of parliamentary elections that are due to be held next year.

 

Lebanon's new president, Aoun, and expected prime minister al-Hariri (Photo: AP) (Photo: AP)
Lebanon's new president, Aoun, and expected prime minister al-Hariri (Photo: AP)

 

Aoun has a wide support base, mostly among Lebanon's educated youth, but is a divisive figure in Lebanon for his role in the 1975-90 civil war. Still, there is cautious hope that his election would breathe some life into state institutions that have been paralyzed for too long.
 
Aoun was quickly sworn in as Lebanon's 13th president, pledging political and economic reform and urging a "real partnership" among notoriously divided Lebanese political factions.

 

Following the parliament session, Aoun is expected to drive to the presidential palace in the southeastern Beirut suburb of Baabda, returning exactly 26 years after he was forced out of it as army commander and interim premier by Syrian forces and Lebanese troops loyal to a rival commander. 



 

Aoun is due to meet MPs later this week on their preferences for prime minister. He is obliged to designate the candidate with the greatest support among MPs, expected to be Hariri.

 

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