Lebanese lawmakers re-elected Nabih Berri as parliament speaker Tuesday for a seventh consecutive term, cementing the octogenarian politician’s reputation as an immovable centrepiece of the country’s political landscape.
Berri’s candidacy went largely unchallenged but the 84-year-old clinched only the bare minimum number of votes needed for a win – one of his lowest counts since he first rose to the helm of Lebanon’s parliament 30 years ago.
During the new parliament’s first session on Tuesday, Berri won 65 votes in the 128-member parliament, where the role of speaker is reserved for a Shiite Muslim under the country’s widely criticised sectarian political system.
The aging Shiite politician is widely viewed as the embodiment of a system that has spawned political paralysis, economic collapse, and the sort of rampant mismanagement that enabled the 2020 Beirut port explosion.
Lebanon’s new parliament, elected on May 15, includes 13 independent politicians and members of some Christian parties who vowed not to vote for Berri as speaker.
Some lawmakers on Tuesday spoilt their ballots by writing slogans blaming the ruling class that Berri embodies for the country’s successive crises. But although Hezbollah and its allies lost their majority in parliament, Berri was the heavyweight candidate for a post reserved for a Shiite Muslim.
In his address to parliament, Berri acknowledged the frustrations with the country’s political system and vowed to work to heal the divisions.
“I will put the insults behind me… and approach blank ballots with a blank heart,” Berri said after his victory, in one of his trademark quips.
He said he would extend his hand to all lawmakers so that, together, they can streamline overdue reforms and facilitate the appointment of a prime minister and a new president.
“The Lebanese, and the rest of world, are looking to you as a beacon of hope, possibly the only one,” Berri told lawmakers. “We all live if Lebanon lives.”
The warlord-turned-politician is one of the longest-serving chiefs of any parliament in the world.
Spoilt ballots with political slogans
With the backing of the powerful Hezbollah, Berri has weathered decades of turbulence and shifting political tides, including a 2019 protest movement demanding wholesale political reform.
Opponents spoilt their ballots with a variety of political slogans.
“Justice for the victims of the Beirut blast,” read one ballot, referring to the 2020 explosion.
“Lokman Slim,” read several ballots, referring to a Hezbollah critic who was found murdered in his car last year.
Berri will preside over a deeply fragmented parliament prone to the kind of deadlock that has paralysed Lebanese politics for decades.
Lawmakers will be called upon to push through long-overdue reforms to stem a financial crisis that has plunged most Lebanese into poverty.
Intense horse-trading expected
While Berri’s re-election Tuesday was largely expected and held within legal deadlines, the country is braced for intense political horse-trading in the coming months.
Observers have warned of protracted deadlocks during consultations to name a new prime minister and in the run-up to an election later this year to replace President Michel Aoun.
Elias Bou Saab, a former education minister, was elected as deputy speaker, a role reserved for a Greek Orthodox Christian.
Bou Saab, allied to the Hezbollah-aligned Free Patriotic Movement of President Aoun, won with 65 votes in the second round of voting against Ghassan Skaff, a newcomer MP who identifies as an independent.
The winners mean Hezbollah’s allies retained two important posts in the parliament.
Nabih Berri, first elected in 1992, was re-elected in 2022. He obtained 65 votes, more than 50% of the 128 MPs.
This can only mean that a significant number of hypocritical Aounist MPs voted for the guy they accuse of being a corrupt baltagi who impeded their “reform and change” pic.twitter.com/6o90JhfM2b
— Karim Emile Bitar (@karimbitar) May 31, 2022
Independent lawmakers chant ‘Revolution’
Ahead of Tuesday’s session, independent lawmakers born out of the 2019 protest movement joined relatives of the victims of the Beirut port blast in a symbolic march from the docks to parliament.
They chanted “revolution” as they passed by Martyrs’ Square – the focal point of the 2019 protests.
“This square will be our reference,” said independent lawmaker Firas Hamdan, who stepped into parliament for the first time on Tuesday.
A lawyer by training, Berri won power as a militia leader during the 1975-1990 civil war and transitioned to politics as the war ended.
He was named minister several times between 1984 and 1992.
That year, in the first polls after the war ended, Berri was simultaneously elected a member and speaker of parliament – the highest post for a Shiite in the country’s sectarian political system.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)