Lebanon’s recently elected 128 MPs will hold binding consultations on Thursday with President Michel Aoun over who should be the country’s prime minister following nationwide elections last month.
Mr Aoun will designate the candidate with the most support among the MPs as prime minister, who will then be given the task of forming a government. This is often a long, drawn-out affair as leading political factions argue over who should take critical roles.
A devastating economic crisis that began in 2019 has plunged many Lebanese people into poverty and led to a devaluation of the local currency by more than 90 per cent. There are also extensive shortages in medical items, electricity and other vital supplies.
The new government will face a difficult task trying to rectify those problems, with parliament divided. Among the new government’s priorities will be enacting a crucial economic recovery plan that is a requirement of a $3 billion bailout by the International Monetary Fund.
Two names have emerged as the main contenders: incumbent prime minister Najib Mikati, a billionaire who has already served in the role three times; and Nawaf Salam, a judge and Lebanon’s former envoy to the UN.
On Wednesday night, on the eve of the consultations, Mr Mikati appeared to have the upper hand and may win the support of more than 50 MPs. He is expected to receive backing from the Iran-backed militant group and political party Hezbollah, its Shiite ally Amal, and some influential Sunni MPs.
In Lebanon's sectarian power-sharing system, the prime minister is a Sunni Muslim, the president a Maronite Christian and the parliament speaker a Shiite Muslim.
“Najib Mikati is a representative of the traditional Lebanese establishment," said Karim Bitar, a professor of international relations at Saint Joseph University in Beirut.
"He’s one of those billionaire politicians. He’s shrewd, has a reputation for being more of a hard worker than [three-time prime minister] Saad Hariri, and he chooses his advisers and collaborators usually more wisely than others.
“However, he is still perceived by large swathes of the Lebanese public opinion as a representative of politics as usual.”
Mr Salam, on the other hand, has attracted the support of some first-time MPs who are closely linked to the October 2019 protests against Lebanon’s ruling classes that led to Mr Hariri’s government's collapse.
Despite hailing from a prominent family, Mr Salam is still mostly regarded as an outsider.
“Even though he comes from a conservative Sunni family, in his youth he was a leftist," Mr Bitar said.
"He has moved towards the centre, but he maintains his reformist ideals. He is still committed to trying to bring change to the Lebanese political system."
But while he will also be supported by Walid Joumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party and the Kataeb Party, it appeared unlikely, at this stage, he will garner enough support to beat Mr Mikati.
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On Wednesday afternoon, the Christian-led Lebanese Forces, which is now the largest party in parliament, announced it would not vote for anyone.
“We will not endorse Nawaf Salam to form a new government, nor Najib Mikati. The Lebanese Forces’ parliamentary group will not endorse anyone tomorrow,” said its leader, Samir Geagea.
“Najib Mikati has made great efforts to organise the parliamentary elections and to negotiate with the International Monetary Fund during this difficult period. Despite this, he does not have the qualities that we have set to become the next prime minister.”
Mr Geagea said his party “did not see enough seriousness in Nawaf Salam to take on this responsibility, given that he rarely visits Lebanon”.
Mr Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, the second-largest Christian party in parliament, has not announced its position yet. But its leader — and Mr Aoun’s son-in-law — Gebran Bassil recently called Mr Mikati “inept” and said he would not be backing him.