Lebanon’s new legislature narrowly elected veteran Shiite Muslim politician Nabih Berri for a seventh term as speaker of parliament in its first session on Tuesday.
Berri, 84, won 65 votes in the 128-member parliament, where the role of speaker is reserved for a Shiite Muslim under the sectarian political system.
It was the slimmest majority ever won by Berri, reflecting the make-up of a new parliament in which the Iran-backed armed Shiite movement Hezbollah and its allies lost the majority they won in 2018.
Tuesday’s session was the first since the new parliament was elected on May 15, in the first vote since Lebanon’s economic collapse and the Beirut port explosion of 2020.
Berri, who leads the Shiite Amal Movement, has held the role of speaker since 1992 and is a close ally of Hezbollah.
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 Michel 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.
The close calls were the first glimpse of how fragmented and polarized Lebanon’s new parliament would be, with no single bloc enjoying a majority.
Opponents of Hezbollah including the Saudi-aligned Lebanese Forces – a Christian faction – gained seats.
Around a dozen opposition newcomers took their seats for the first time after an unexpectedly strong breakthrough by reform-minded candidates into a system long dominated by the same sectarian groups.
A group of them walked to parliament on Tuesday morning from the entrance of the Beirut port in a tribute to the more than 215 victims of the explosion.
The opposition lawmakers walked past metal barricades outside which they had protested in 2019, when unprecedented anti-government demonstrations rocked Lebanon.
Some of the votes cast in the secret ballots carried messages echoing grievances against a sectarian elite that has steered Lebanon into its worst instability since the 1975-90 civil war.
They included votes for anti-Hezbollah Shiite thinker Lokman Slim, who was killed in February 2021, as well as “justice for the Beirut blast.”
Analysts have warned that the divisions were likely to produce a political paralysis that could further delay passing reform laws needed to drag Lebanon out of economic disaster and create a vacuum in top leadership positions.
Lebanon’s system of government now requires Aoun, a Maronite Christian, to consult with lawmakers on their choice for prime minister, which must go to a Sunni Muslim.
Aoun, who has yet to set a date for the consultations, must designate the candidate with the greatest support to form a cabinet – a process that can take many months.
Outgoing Prime Minister Najib Mikati is widely seen as leading candidate for the post again.