2-year vac­uum ends as Aoun elected Le­banon pres­i­dent

Amir sends con­grat­u­la­tions

Kuwait Times - - FRONT PAGE -

Le­banese law­mak­ers ended a two-year po­lit­i­cal vac­uum yes­ter­day by elect­ing as pres­i­dent ex-army chief Michel Aoun, who promised to pro­tect the coun­try from spillover from the war in Syria. The deeply di­vided par­lia­ment took four rounds of vot­ing to elect 81year-old Aoun, whose sup­port­ers flooded streets across the coun­try wav­ing his party’s or­ange flag. “Le­banon is still tread­ing through a mine­field, but it has been spared the fires burn­ing across the re­gion,” Aoun said af­ter tak­ing the pres­i­den­tial oath. “It re­mains a pri­or­ity to pre­vent any sparks from reach­ing Le­banon,” the Ma­ronite Chris­tian leader said.

HH the Amir of Kuwait Sheikh Sabah Al-Ah­mad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah yes­ter­day sent a con­grat­u­la­tory ca­ble to Aoun. In the ca­ble, the Amir lauded good fra­ter­nal re­la­tions be­tween Kuwait and Le­banon, and stressed mu­tual will­ing­ness to pro­mote and de­velop them in var­i­ous fields for the com­mon in­ter­est of both sides. HH the Crown Prince Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ah­mad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah and HH the Prime Min­is­ter Sheikh Jaber Al-Mubarak Al-Ha­mad Al-Sabah also sent the new Le­banese pres­i­dent sim­i­lar ca­bles of con­grat­u­la­tion.

Syria’s five-year war has been a ma­jor fault line for Le­banon’s po­lit­i­cal class, and an­a­lysts have warned Aoun’s elec­tion will not be a “magic wand” for di­vi­sions that have long plagued par­lia­men­tar­i­ans. The next chal­lenge will be form­ing a govern­ment, which is ex­pected to take months of wran­gling. Pres­i­den­tial me­dia of­fice chief Rafic Ch­lala said con­sul­ta­tions to name a prime min­is­ter would be­gin to­mor­row morn­ing, with an an­nounce­ment ex­pected at noon Thurs­day.

It re­mains un­clear if Le­banon’s per­pet­u­ally in­ef­fec­tual po­lit­i­cal class can solve key prob­lems such as a trash cri­sis that has seen rub­bish pile up in open dumps. The par­lia­ment that elected Aoun has twice ex­tended its own man­date, avoid­ing elec­tions, be­cause of dis­agree­ments over a new elec­toral law. Aoun had long eyed the pres­i­dency, and his can­di­dacy was backed from the be­gin­ning by Shi­ite move­ment Hezbol­lah, his ally since a sur­prise rap­proche­ment in 2006.

But the key to clinch­ing the post was the shock sup­port of two of his great­est ri­vals: Chris­tian Le­banese Forces leader Samir Geagea and Sunni for­mer premier Saad Hariri. Hariri, ex­pected to be ap­pointed prime min­is­ter, said his en­dorse­ment was nec­es­sary to “pro­tect Le­banon, pro­tect the (po­lit­i­cal) sys­tem, pro­tect the state and pro­tect the Le­banese peo­ple”.

Hariri and Geagea both op­pose Syria’s Bashar AlAs­sad, while Hezbol­lah and its al­lies have sup­ported Da­m­as­cus, also dis­patch­ing fight­ers to bol­ster its forces. That feud left law­mak­ers re­peat­edly un­able to reach con­sen­sus on the pres­i­dency, a post re­served for a Ma­ronite Chris­tian and elected by par­lia­ment. Af­ter tak­ing the oath, Aoun rode in a con­voy of black cars to the pres­i­den­tial palace in Baabda, east of Beirut, where his wife and three daugh­ters were wait­ing to con­grat­u­late him.

In Beirut’s ma­jor­ity-Chris­tian neigh­bor­hood of Ashrafiyeh, rev­ellers launched fire­works and loosed vol­leys of cel­e­bra­tory gun­fire. The at­mos­phere in Jdei­deh out­side Beirut was one of un­tram­melled joy, with thou­sands honk­ing car horns and pop­ping bot­tles of cham­pagne. “I’m so happy. Af­ter 25 years our dream has come true,” said 33-year-old ac­coun­tant Giselle Tam­mam.

Euro­pean Union diplo­matic chief Fed­er­ica Mogherini said Aoun’s elec­tion “opens the way for all po­lit­i­cal par­ties to now en­gage in con­struc­tive di­a­logue” to ad­dress the needs of Le­banese cit­i­zens. Iran “con­grat­u­lated” the Le­banese peo­ple, call­ing the elec­tion “an im­por­tant step to en­trench democ­racy and en­sure Le­banon’s sta­bil­ity”. Syria’s Al-Watan daily, which is close to the govern­ment, said the elec­tion rep­re­sents “the tri­umph of the re­sis­tance, of Syria and its al­lies”.

In ad­di­tion to prom­ises of eco­nomic growth and se­cu­rity, Aoun said Le­banon’s govern­ment must work to en­sure Syr­ian refugees “can re­turn quickly” to their neigh­bor­ing home­land. The influx of more than one mil­lion Syr­ian refugees has tested the coun­try’s limited re­sources, al­ready strained by hun­dreds of thou­sands of dis­placed Pales­tini­ans who live in squalid and of­ten law­less camps.

Le­banon’s 127 law­mak­ers took nearly two hours to elect Aoun, who failed to se­cure a two-thirds ma­jor­ity in the first round, trig­ger­ing a sec­ond. The sec­ond round was re­peated twice, af­ter 128 bal­lots - ex­ceed­ing the num­ber of MPs - were cast. At times the ses­sion threat­ened to de­scend into farce, with votes cast for pop star Myr­iam Klink and “Zorba the Greek”.

Other law­mak­ers, in­clud­ing from speaker Nabih Berri’s bloc, cast blank bal­lots in protest at the horse­trad­ing that se­cured Aoun’s can­di­dacy. “A blank bal­lot is an ob­jec­tion to the way things were done,” MP Ali Khreis told AFP be­fore the vote. “This coun­try doesn’t run on bi­lat­eral or tri­lat­eral agree­ments - we be­lieve in di­a­logue.”

But Aoun even­tu­ally se­cured 83 votes, far more than the 50-per­cent-plus-one ma­jor­ity needed for a sec­on­dround vic­tory. Af­ter an­nounc­ing Aoun’s win, Berri said the elec­tion “should be a be­gin­ning, not an end”. “This par­lia­ment is ready to ex­tend its hand to lift up Le­banon,” he said. Chris­tian politi­cian Sleiman Fran­jieh a child­hood friend of Syria’s As­sad and Berri’s fa­vored can­di­date - said he “re­spected the re­sult”. “We’ll see what is pro­posed to us for the govern­ment,” he tweeted, hint­ing at a po­ten­tial min­is­te­rial post as a con­so­la­tion prize. — Agen­cies

BEIRUT: Le­banese peo­ple take to the streets in Jdei­deh, on the north­ern out­skirts of the cap­i­tal, to cel­e­brate the elec­tion of for­mer gen­eral Michel Aoun as pres­i­dent yes­ter­day. (Inset) Aoun poses with the pres­i­den­tial medal at the pres­i­den­tial palace in Baabda yes­ter­day. —AFP

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