Lebanese longtime parliament speaker re-elected to post

May 23, 2018
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Lebanese Hezbollah's parliamentary bloc members enter parliament for the election of the house speaker, in Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, May 23, 2018. Lebanese lawmakers have overwhelmingly re-elected the longtime octogenarian parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, to the post, giving him monopoly of the office for 30 years. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanese lawmakers overwhelmingly re-elected the country’s longtime parliament speaker to the post on Wednesday, giving the 80-year-old monopoly of the office for three decades now.

The re-election of Nabih Berri, a Shiite Muslim ally of the Iran-backed Hezbollah group who has held the post since 1992, reflects Lebanon’s entrenched sectarian-based political system, which has held despite rising discontent. Another ally of Hezbollah was elected as his deputy.

The 128-seat assembly voted 98 in favor of Berri, with 29 blank ballots and one that was annulled. The newly elected parliament convened Wednesday for the first time after May 6 nationwide balloting. It’s Berri’s sixth consecutive term; he ran unchallenged.

The country’s first parliamentary elections in nine years ended years of political stalemate over a new election law and repeated extension of the parliament’s terms. Hezbollah and its political allies scored significant gains in those elections.

Outgoing Prime Minister Saad Hariri called Berri a “national symbol.” The oldest member of parliament, 86-year-old Michel Murr commended Berri for successfully managing the country’s sectarian politics over the years, preventing conflict.

“I extend my sincere thanks, for the sixth time, to the members of parliament for their confidence in renewing my responsibilities as parliament speaker,” Berri said, addressing the assembly following the vote.

Keeping on Berri as parliament speaker is expected to smooth the way for the formation of a new government in the coming weeks, likely to be headed by Hariri, who enjoys backing by Western countries. Like the outgoing Cabinet, it’s also likely to be a unity government that incorporates Hezbollah members.

Berri said Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun will begin on Thursday consultations with lawmakers to pick a prime minister-designate.

Lebanon’s political system, built to distribute power among its various sects, mandates a Christian president, a Sunni prime minister and a Shiite parliament speaker, while the Cabinet and parliament seats are equally divided between Muslims and Christians.

That Berri faced no challengers, and rarely has over the years, owes much to Lebanon’s sectarian-based and elite-dominated political system, which has mostly kept the peace since the 1975-1990 civil war, but has also spawned political paralysis and endemic corruption.

Berri is seen by some as an embodiment of that system, which shows no signs of changing despite rising discontent. But the parliament speaker, who is one of Lebanon’s most influential and enduring politicians, is also seen as a moderate, unifying figure who lifted his Shiite community’s profile and role in the country’s postwar politics, often acting as mediator among feuding Lebanese factions.

Celebratory gunfire and firecrackers erupted across southern Beirut after Berri was approved. A pro-Syrian member of parliament, Elie Firzli, was re-elected as his deputy.

As leader of the Shiite Amal movement, which is closely allied with the powerful Hezbollah, Berri is virtually untouchable. The two parties hold all but one of the 27 seats allotted to Shiites in parliament.