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Lebanon fails to elect new president as political crisis deepens

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Beirut (AFP) – Lebanon’s parliament failed to elect a new president after a first round of voting on Thursday amid deep divisions over the replacement of Michel Aoun whose term expires next month.

A majority of lawmakers voted blank, suggesting the electoral process risks dragging out, an outcome Lebanon can ill afford as it grapples with a crippling financial crisis.

President Nabih Berri has said he will convene a new session of parliament “when an agreement is reached on the next president” – a process that could take months in a country where constitutional deadlines are routinely missed.

Thursday’s session brought together 122 of the 128 members of parliament, 66 of whom voted blank.

Christian politician Michel Moawad, son of former President Rene Moawad, emerged as the frontrunner but his 36 votes fell well short of the 86 needed to win in the first round.

Under Lebanon’s long-standing sectarian power-sharing system, the presidency is reserved for a Maronite Christian.

A walkout by some MPs meant there was no second round of voting.

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Deep divisions among lawmakers have raised fears that Lebanon could be left without a president after Aoun’s term expires at the end of October.

The incumbent’s own election in 2016 came after a 29-month vacancy in the presidential palace as lawmakers made 45 failed attempts to reach consensus on a candidate.

“Obvious risk”

The political parties which must now agree on the next head of state must still appoint a new government to replace the outgoing one after the expiry of his mandate in May.

“If there is a political vacuum, the economic crisis will intensify and there is a clear risk of security incidents,” said analyst Karim Bitar.

The Lebanese pound has lost more than 95% of its value on the black market since 2019 in a financial meltdown described by the World Bank as one of the worst in modern times.

The crisis has caused poverty rates to rise to more than 80% of the population, while food prices have risen by 2,000%, according to the United Nations.

The international community has pressured Lebanese lawmakers to elect a new president “in due time” to avoid plunging the country deeper into crisis

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Last week, France, Saudi Arabia and the United States issued a joint statement urging MPs to “elect a president capable of uniting the Lebanese people”.

“As the Lebanese parliament prepares to elect a new president, we stress the importance of timely elections in accordance with the constitution,” the statement said.

Lebanon is under pressure from the International Monetary Fund to streamline the implementation of reforms needed to unlock billions in loans before Aoun’s term expires.

As part of that effort, lawmakers on Monday approved an overdue 2022 budget.

The budget pegged the official exchange rate at 15,000 pounds to the dollar – less than half its black market rate – contravening calls from the IMF to unify exchange rates.

The Ministry of Finance said on Wednesday it was working on the first devaluation of the pound in more than two decades.

But a ministry spokesman told AFP on Thursday that parliament’s approval of an overdue financial recovery plan must precede the devaluation.