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Crisis-hit Lebanon drifts towards extended power vacuum

Lebanese President Michel Aoun's mandate expires at the end of this month
— Beirut (AFP)

Already reeling from three years of economic meltdown, Lebanon faces the prospect of its multi-faceted crisis deepening further when President Michel Aoun's mandate expires in a week from now.

The deadline looms as the country is headed by a caretaker administration, since key parties have been unable to agree on a proper government to replace one whose mandate expired in May.

Parliament has held four rounds of voting since last month, with no candidate garnering enough support from parties to succeed Aoun, prompting fears of a protracted power vacuum.

It's something that Lebanon -- whose currency has effectively lost more than 90 percent of its dollar value in the last three years and whose citizens have seen their bank deposits evaporate -- can ill-afford.

Basic political cooperation is required to unlock billions of dollars in rescue funds from wary donors.

"The most likely scenario after the end of Aoun's mandate is a protracted presidential vacuum until Lebanon's major political parties agree on a candidate," said Lina Khatib, head of the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House.

Lawmaker Michel Moawad won the most votes in parliament, garnering Monday the support of 39 lawmakers opposed to the powerful Shiite organisation Hezbollah in Lebanon's 128-seat parliament.

But that was still far from securing the 86 votes needed to win the presidency.

Other frontrunners include former minister and parliamentarian Sleiman Frangieh, the scion of a political dynasty who is close to Hezbollah and a personal friend of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.

- 'Systematic disruption' -

"Hezbollah will insist on imposing a candidate," Khatib said.

In 2019, Lebanon was gripped by a mass protest movement decrying corruption amongst the country's entrenched political elite

The Iran-backed group has not officially endorsed a candidate but Frangieh was always considered one of the group's preferred choices -- though its Christian ally, Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), will not back him.

Gebran Bassil, Aoun's son-in-law who heads the FPM, is also vying for the presidency.

Iran's arch-enemy Saudi Arabia will not back Frangieh, a source close to Hezbollah told AFP, because of his close ties to Syria, a country shunned by Riyadh.

Moawad's supporters in parliament accused Hezbollah and its allies of obstructing the vote for weeks to negotiate with other blocs.

They had adopted a similar tactic in the last election by boycotting the vote in parliament -- a move that left Lebanon without a president for more than two years, until Aoun's 2016 win.

Elias Hankash, a lawmaker from the Kataeb Party who supports Moawad, accused Hezbollah and its allies of "systematic disruption".

Moawad has good ties with Washington and has repeatedly asked for the powerful Hezbollah -- the only faction to keep its weapons after the end of Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war -- to disarm.

- 'Embassies worried' -

Under Lebanon's longstanding confessional power-sharing system, the presidency is reserved for a Maronite Christian.

Lebanon failed for a fourth time to elect a successor to President Michel Aoun before his term ends next week

In Lebanon's divided parliament, no bloc holds a clear majority, which means the main players are forced to agree on a candidate.

Hezbollah is betting on a power vacuum to tire out their opponents and obtain an "agreement by coercion", Hankash said.

In 2019, three years into Aoun's mandate, a severe financial meltdown plunged the country into one of the world's worst economic crises in recent history according to the World Bank.

Lebanon has yet to enact most reforms needed to access billions of dollars in loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

It's a far cry from the optimism of a mass protest movement born three years ago that railed against sectarianism and the entrenched political elite, but whose momentum slowed when the coronavirus pandemic struck.

In August 2020, Lebanon was thrown into further despair when Beirut was ravaged by one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions worldwide, triggered by haphazardly stored ammonium nitrate.

"A political crisis is the last thing that Lebanese need right now," a Western diplomatic source told AFP.

"Lebanon needs leadership to push through with the reforms needed to implement the IMF deal," the source said.

"Most embassies are worried about the very real possibility that Lebanon won't have a president after Aoun's term expires."

For political analyst Sami Nader, should political parties fail to agree on a candidate, the situation "may call for pressure or external intervention" to resolve their dispute.