Lebanese parliament fails to elect new head of state

The Lebanese parliament failed to elect a new head of state on Thursday to replace President Michel Aoun when his term ends on October 31.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun is seen in Baabda, Lebanon (photo credit: DALATI NOHRA/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
Lebanese President Michel Aoun is seen in Baabda, Lebanon
(photo credit: DALATI NOHRA/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

The Lebanese parliament failed to elect a new head of state on Thursday to replace President Michel Aoun when his term ends on Oct. 31, signaling the likelihood of the post being left vacant as the country grapples with a financial crisis.

Shi'ite Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri said he would only call a new session once he saw there was consensus on a candidate for the post, which is reserved for a Maronite Christian in Lebanon's sectarian system.

The election rules mean no one party or alliance can impose their choice, requiring a two-thirds quorum in the politically fractured parliament.

Lebanon's presidency history

The presidency has fallen vacant several times since the 1975-90 civil war. Anticipating another vacuum, politicians have stepped up efforts to agree on a new cabinet led by Sunni Muslim Prime Minister Najib Mikati - who is currently serving in a caretaker capacity - to which presidential powers could pass.

Supporters of Lebanese President Michel Aoun carry his picture near the presidential palace in Baabda, ahead of his address to the nation (credit: REUTERS/MOHAMED AZAKIR)Supporters of Lebanese President Michel Aoun carry his picture near the presidential palace in Baabda, ahead of his address to the nation (credit: REUTERS/MOHAMED AZAKIR)

The powerful Iran-backed Shi'ite group Hezbollah cast blank ballots, as did its allies the Shi'ite Amal Movement and Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement, totaling 63 of the 122 lawmakers who attended.

"The country is in a deep and hard crisis...which requires agreement on a consensus president, not a president of confrontations," said Hezbollah MP Ibrahim Moussawi.

Hezbollah and the Lebanese government

Hezbollah's sway over parliament has diminished since the group and its allies lost their majority in a May election which left an even more splintered legislature.

The anti-Hezbollah politician Michel Moawad, whose father Rene was assassinated in 1989 just 18 days after becoming president, was backed by 36 lawmakers, including the Saudi-aligned Lebanese Forces.

Hezbollah members carry mock missile during procession held to celebrate Ashura in south Lebanon, 2009 (credit: ALI HASHISHO/REUTERS)Hezbollah members carry mock missile during procession held to celebrate Ashura in south Lebanon, 2009 (credit: ALI HASHISHO/REUTERS)

Lebanon's other heavyweight Maronites are equally divisive, including the Hezbollah-aligned Suleiman Frangieh and LF leader Samir Geagea, a Hezbollah opponent.

Analysts see no obvious compromise candidate at present.

United States and European Union urging for timely elections

Foreign powers including the United States and European Union have urged for timely presidential elections.

A presidential vacuum could further complicate government decision-making as Lebanon enters the fourth year of a financial collapse policymakers have done little or nothing to address.

It is Lebanon's worst since the 1975-90 civil war.

If a new cabinet cannot be agreed upon by Oct. 31, Lebanon would have neither a fully empowered government nor a president.

Hezbollah, Amal and FPM lawmakers left Thursday's session before the second round of voting - when only 65 votes are needed to elect a president - leading to a loss of quorum.

Independent lawmaker Firas Hamdan said the kind of consensus sought by Berri was to blame for Lebanon's troubles. "We are spinning in the same circle. This poses a danger to us, to the country and to the economy," he said.

The presidency was vacant for 29 months before Aoun was elected in 2016, thanks to a deal with Saad al-Hariri, who became prime minister.

Foreign states have historically played a part in determining the presidency's fate in a country that has been a theatre for international rivalries.

In 2008, a six-month presidential vacuum was brought to an end by a Qatari-mediated deal backed by other powers.