The longtime speaker of Lebanon’s parliament, who has held the post for 30 years, was re-elected on Tuesday for a seventh four-year term with the minimum number of votes needed and despite the multiple crises plaguing the country.
Yet the narrow majority in favor of Nabih Berri reflected a significant shift in public opinion in a crumbling economy on the brink of bankruptcy. His re-election was virtually guaranteed – even though more than a dozen new lawmakers won seats on a reform platform.
The new legislature is inaugurated as Lebanon remains in the throes of the worst economic and financial crisis in its modern history, rooted in decades of corruption and mismanagement by the ruling class, which has ruled the country since the late 1975s- 90 civil war.
For most Lebanese, Berri, an 84-year-old former warlord, is a symbol of this sectarian political system and entrenched ruling class, which continues to hold on despite growing discontent and newly elected, reform-minded lawmakers.
As the leader of the Shiite Amal movement, which is closely allied with the militant group Hezbollah, Berri is virtually untouchable – still unchallenged. The two parties hold the 27 seats allocated to Shiites in parliament under Lebanon’s power-sharing system.
In a reflection of the divisions and polarization within the new assembly, Tuesday’s session was characterized by a tense back-and-forth of shouting and arguing between Berri and outraged lawmakers.
The May 15 election was the first since Lebanon’s economic crisis began in late 2019 with nationwide mass protests against the political class. Since then, Lebanon’s currency has collapsed, banks have clamped down on depositors’ money, and the country’s foreign exchange reserves have shrunk to barely enough to buy essentials such as fuel and medicine amid severe shortages.
The new parliament is deeply divided, with no coalition holding a majority. Hezbollah and its allies have lost the dominance they have held since 2018 and now hold 61 seats, four short of an absolute majority in the 128-seat chamber.
Berri was elected with 65 votes in favor – the lowest number he has received in three decades. There were 23 blank ballots and 40 were cancelled. In 2000, Berri won 124 assembly votes and in 2018 he won 98.
“My hand is extended to anyone who wants to cooperate in good faith to save Lebanon,” Berri said as gunfire from his supporters rang out in parts of Beirut. He issued a statement on Monday calling on his supporters to refrain from traditional shots in the air.
“Mr. President, shooting is going on outside,” lawmaker Sammy Gemayel joked, interrupting Berri as he spoke. Berri replied, “I released a statement, what can I do ?
The 13 independent candidates, who emerged from the 2019 protest movement, and some of the Christian parties in parliament had said they would not vote for Berri, leaving him with a much slimmer margin of support, mostly from Shiite parties belonging to the led coalition by Hezbollah. . The mighty Berri was the only candidate for president, which under Lebanon’s power-sharing deal is held by a Shia.
Ahead of the session, some of the independents and new lawmakers gathered outside the Port of Beirut – the scene of a massive explosion in August 2020 that killed more than 200 people – and met the families of victims who perished in the ‘blast. After the meeting, they went to parliament, surrounded by hundreds of supporters chanting “revolution”.
Independent lawmaker Mark Daou, a newcomer, entered the parliament building carrying a large poster with photographs of those killed in the blast. Two of the politicians charged in connection with the explosion are members of Berri’s parliamentary bloc. They legally challenged the order of the investigating judge and were present at the assembly on Tuesday after being re-elected on May 15.
“It is a moment of change in Lebanon. There is a new political group that represents a large part of Lebanese society that has taken a significant block in parliament and that will change the dynamic that we have had and that has destroyed the country since the civil war,” he said. he told The Associated Press before the session.
The investigation into the port explosion, when hundreds of tonnes of improperly stored ammonium nitrate exploded, has stalled for months amid legal challenges by officials charged by the investigating judge.
“Beirut has the right to know who killed her,” said independent lawmaker Yassin Yassin, referring to the failed investigation.
Reflecting the divisions in parliament, many of the ballots spoiled on Tuesday bore slogans such as ‘justice for the victims of the port blast’ and ‘justice for Lokman Slim’, an anti-Hezbollah Shia political activist who was found shot dead in his car last year.
The presence of independent lawmakers in the Legislative Assembly is a major achievement – they cast their votes in a piecemeal fashion and faced intimidation and threats from entrenched mainstream parties.
He sent a strong message to politicians who for decades have kept their seats and continue to do so despite the economic crisis, which has impoverished Lebanon and triggered the biggest wave of emigration since the 1975-1990 civil war. .