Former I.M.F. Regional Director Racks Up Support In Bid For Lebanon’s Year-Long Vacant Presidency

On June 4th, Lebanese lawmakers nominated former finance minister and International Monetary Fund regional director Jihad Azour for President, according to Middle East Eye.

Last October, former president Michel Aoun’s term expired without the appointment of a replacement, leaving the position vacant. Lebanon has a complex power-sharing government, where the president – the head of state – is a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister is a Sunni Muslim, and the role of parliament speaker is filled by a Shiite Muslim. In part due to its complex political structure and lasting after-effects from the 1975-1990 civil war, but also in recent years to the effects of the ongoing conflict in Syria, the state has been mired in dysfunction, with Iran-backed Shiite Hezbollah holding considerable sway in the political sphere.

Azour served as Lebanon’s finance minister from 2005 to 2008 and worked as the I.M.F.’s Middle East and Central Asia director, but took a leave of absence after officially becoming a presidential candidate. Support for Azour’s candidacy unites the fractured and disparate Lebanese opposition against Hezbollah, and the Free Patriotic Movement, the Shiite movement’s main Christian ally, also said that it would support Azour.

Hezbollah, for its part, has backed pro-Syria candidate Suleiman Frangieh for the position. Frangieh’s candidacy has been opposed by the countries’ two main Christian parties, according to Middle East Eye, leaving his bid without an obvious path to gaining a majority within the divided parliament. Nonetheless, local media reports that Hezbollah lawmaker Hassan Fadlallah called Mr. Azour’s nomination “a waste of time,” saying that “a candidate of confrontation,” in reference to the opposition’s challenge to Hezbollah’s candidate of choice, would not be elected President.

Despite this opposition, that the Free Patriotic Movement endorsed Azour’s candidacy is encouraging, given their long-standing relationship with Hezbollah. This indicates that Azour appeals to more than merely the traditional Lebanese opposition. Furthermore, opposition and anti-Hezbollah legislator Michael Moawad, who had previously been backed by the coalition, withdrew his candidacy on June 4th and threw his support behind Azour. Though he had won the most votes in repeated presidential election votes, he had never reached the 65-vote threshold necessary to move onto the next round of voting.

Any move to stabilize the nation’s fractious government is a welcome one, even if it promotes more discord in the short term. Azour’s background as a finance minister and former I.M.F. official makes him well placed to lead a government response to Lebanon’s long-festering economic crisis, both internally and in appeals to external creditors. These creditors, most of whom are located in the West, have historically been wary of dealing with Hezbollah – and vice versa. If Azour takes the presidency, Lebanon has a greater chance of becoming financially stable.

Lebanon’s top Maronite cleric, Patriarch Beshara al-Rai, said that he embraced “any step” to ending the long-festering stalemate, according to Reuters. It is by no means certain that Azour will win the presidency, but, generally speaking, nations become more politically stable the more their economies prosper. Azour’s candidacy is a promising sign for Lebanon’s chances of becoming an internally and externally peaceful state.