London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Lebanese MPs failed to select a new president on Wednesday, in what my herald the beginning of a fierce and divisive competition to elect a new head of state.
The president of Lebanon, traditionally a Maronite Christian, is elected by a secret ballot of MPs, yet so far no consensus candidate has emerged with enough support in the country’s parliament to win an outright victory.
The most prominent candidate, Samir Geagea of the Lebanese Forces Party, received 48 votes, falling short of the two-thirds majority needed for an outright, first-round victory.
Subsequent rounds require only a simple majority of one-half on MPs plus one. Of 128 MPs in the Lebanese parliament, 124 attended Wednesday’s session.
52 Lebanese MPs turned in blank ballot papers, ensuring that no candidate could win a first-round vote, which requires a two-thirds majority, or subsequent ballots, which require a simple majority.
Seven ballots were declared void.
Geagea is backed by the March 14 alliance, which is headed by the Future Movement leader Saad Al-Hariri.
The rival March 8 Alliance, which includes Hezbollah, has hinted that it favors Michel Aoun, a rival Christian leader and former army chief who heads the Free Patriotic Movement, also part of March 8.
Aoun has yet to officially declare himself a candidate, but has positioned himself as a consensus figure, in contrast to Geagea, the only former warlord to be jailed for his part in the Lebanese Civil War and a prominent opponent of Hezbollah.
Several of Wednesdays ballots were cast in favor of men killed during the civil war, whose relatives have accused Geagea of responsibility for their deaths, according to Lebanon’s Daily Star newspaper.
Geagea’s failure to secure a first-round victory could open the door for other candidates—such as Aoun—to throw their hats into the ring or refocus attention on less prominent figures.
The head of the Progressive Socialist Party, Walid Jumblatt, nominated a member of his party, Henry Helou, for the presidency on Tuesday. He received 16 votes in Wednesday’s parliamentary session.
Press reports have also mooted Lebanese army commander Jean Kahwaji and central bank governor Riad Salameh as potential candidates.
According to the Lebanese constitution, lawmakers have two months to select a new head of state, with incumbent Michel Suleiman due to step down on May 25 at the end of his six-year term.
It is considered crucial for Lebanon to select a new president ahead of parliamentary elections later this year, after the country spent ten months without a government due to a political deadlock that was only resolved in February.
Lebanon has also struggled with the spillover of the fighting in neighboring Syria, which has exacerbated sectarian tensions across the country, and led to more than a million refugees to seek shelter there.
The next vote is scheduled for April 30.