Lebanese party seeks Damascus’s approval after rejecting Hezbollah presidential candidate

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Lebanon’s former president Michel Aoun has traveled to Syria to shore up relations with Damascus after his party rejected Hezbollah’s preferred presidential candidate.

The Free Patriotic Movement said Aoun, its leader, “traveled on Tuesday to Damascus on a visit during which he will meet with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.”

It came days after the FPM announced it backed opposition candidate Jihad Azour for the Lebanese presidency and rejected Hezbollah’s preference Suleiman Frangieh, who is a close friend of Assad.

Aoun was accompanied by former minister Pierre Raffoul. A source close to the FPM stated that Aoun’s goal was “to confirm the continuation of the relationship and the strategic positioning of the FPM.

“In return, Aoun will explain to Assad that the FPM’s rejection of Frangieh has nothing to do with this positioning, and he will warn that clinging to Frangieh would pose a danger to Christian consensus.”

Aoun’s presidential term ended on October 31 of last year, and the presidency has remained vacant since then due to political jostling that led to the FPM abandoning its alliance with Hezbollah over Frangieh’s nomination.

Aoun was quoted during a meeting of the FPM parliamentary bloc on Monday evening as saying that Azour, who previously held the position of finance minister, “is a technocrat and works at the IMF (as Director of the Middle East and Central Asia Department), which is what Lebanon needs, while the head of the Marada Movement, Suleiman Frangieh, is an integral part of the ruling system that has brought Lebanon to where it is.”

Political parties are scrambling to secure the votes of MPs for the forthcoming presidential contest, set down by the Speaker of Parliament, Nabih Berri, for June 14.

So far, more than 30 out of 128 MPs have not yet decided on their position regarding supporting Azour. Some independent and undecided MPs say they are yet to make a decision while others will not disclose their choice.

The parliamentary bloc of the Democratic Gathering (the Progressive Socialist Party) will meet on Thursday to discuss its choice.

Others yet to make their choice public are the National Consensus (Faisal Karami and his allies), National Moderation (North), and the Independent Parliamentary Gathering which includes MPs Imad Hawat, Bilal al-Hashimi, Nabil Badr, Neeemat Ferm, and Jamil Abboud.

Armenian MPs, the three MPs of Sidon-Jezzine and about 10 MPs from the Change bloc plus some other unaffiliated independents, make up the list of those undecided.

MP Hassan Fadlallah from Hezbollah’s parliamentary bloc said it would “exercise its constitutional and legal rights in full, and we are now in a stage of discussion. We have time until the session date, and we will take a common position and proceed to implement it at the designated time.”

“We have not imposed our opinion on anyone, nor have we imposed a candidate on anyone. Instead, we said that there is a candidate, and let’s come to the discussion. The natural outcome is dialogue.”

It is all but guaranteed that 86 or more MPs will vote in the first round, meaning it will meet the legal threshold for legitimacy. However, neither candidate is expected to win two-thirds of all MPs’ votes, meaning a second round will be required where the threshold is reduced to 65 votes.

Supporters of Azour claim that he has secured between 65 and 70 votes. However, the second round of voting remains subject to the possibility of not reaching the quorum.

Previously, a joint-veto was placed on Frangieh by the Christian parliamentary blocs. There is concern that a joint-Shia veto will now be placed on Azour, who as yet has no declared support from that bloc.

The Amal Movement, Hezbollah and their allies previously resorted to obstructing the quorum of the second round of voting, as happened in the 11 sessions that were held during the nomination phase of MP Michel Moawad.

“The second round of voting will be an opportunity to reveal the limitations of everyone and to move from this stage to a more serious stage in the search for a moderate presidential candidate,” said the political observer.

Razi El Hage, a member of the parliamentary bloc of the Lebanese Forces which supports Azour, said that the campaign against him by opponents “does not indicate a positive approach to dealing with the election.

“Azour was not previously a candidate of any of the blocs that now support him, and he is not a candidate of challenge or maneuvering. Everyone converged around him to achieve the presidential mandate.

“They must respect the choice of the MPs, and let them apply the provisions of the Constitution and allow the successive rounds of voting, and they will see that the MPs are capable of electing Azour with an absolute majority.”

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