The Lebanese opposition announced on Sunday its nomination of former minister Jihad Azour as president. The Free Patriotic Movement also announced its support for Azour’s run.
A meeting of the parties endorsed the nomination of Azour, currently director of the Middle East and Central Asia Department at the International Monetary Fund.
Lebanon has had no head of state since President Michel Aoun's term ended at the end of October, deepening institutional paralysis in a country where one of the world's worst economic crises has been festering for years.
The nomination pits Azour against Marada movement leader Suleiman Franjieh, the candidate of the Shiite duo of Hezbollah and Amal, which is headed by parliament Speaker Nabih Berri.
Franjieh is an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with strong ties to the ruling political establishment in Damascus.
Lawmaker Michel Moawad, who had won the most votes in repeated unsuccessful presidential election votes, but not enough to win, said he had withdrawn his candidacy in favor of Azour.
“After intense contacts, we agreed on Jihad Azour as a centrist and non-provocative figure to any party in the country,” he added.
Opposition deputies said the consensus around Azour could help him garner the 65 votes needed in a secret ballot by lawmakers in the 128-member parliament to assume the post.
The opposition includes the Lebanese Forces, Kataeb and a number of independent lawmakers opposed to Hezbollah and to Franjieh’s nomination. The FPM, which is headed by MP Jebran Bassil, has joined them in opposing Franjieh’s bid.
Azour has not declared his own candidacy, but political sources say he has held discrete meetings with various parties and members of parliament to discuss his chances.
In his Sunday sermon, a few hours before Azour was backed by opposition MPs, Maronite Patriarch Beshara al-Rai said he welcomed “any step” towards ending the stalemate over the presidency.
Rai later revealed that he had met with Franjieh and dispatched and envoy to meet with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah to break the presidential impasse, reported Al Jadeed television.
Hezbollah officials had accused those delaying Franjieh's nomination of prolonging the crisis and serving the West.
“This new candidate that was announced is for us a candidate for confrontation,” Hezbollah deputy Hassan Fadlallah said on Sunday, without naming Azour.
Washington has warned that the administration was considering sanctions on Lebanese officials for their continued obstruction of the election of a new president and warned the paralysis could only worsen the country's crisis.
Attention will now turn to Berri, who will be under pressure to call parliament to session to hold the elections. The speaker has repeatedly said he would only call the legislature to meet once “serious” candidates are available.
He had recently said he would decide what to do “once the opposition takes a clear stance over its candidate.”
Mowad had called on Berri to call parliament to session “immediately” and for successive elections to be held until a victor is declared.