Helou nomination energizes Lebanese presidential race

Helou's nomination eases concerns of a potentially limited election.

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The nomination Tuesday of MP Henri Helou as Walid Jumblatt’s presidential candidate has invigorated the race to elect Lebanon’s next head of state and eased concerns about a potentially limited election between former warlords, such as Samir Geagea and Michel Aoun.

In his announcement, Jumblatt, who is seen as the country’s political kingmaker, described Helou as a “voice of moderation.”

Helou, a Maronite MP from Allay, is the third Lebanese to officially announce his candidacy for the presidency, joining Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea and MP Robert Ghanem.

Heading the second largest parliamentary bloc, Aoun is also considered a “natural candidate” for the top political post, but has not officially announced whether he will be a presidential candidate.

Although Aoun and Geagea enjoy wide support among Lebanon’s Christian community, their Civil War past means either would represent a controversial choice for president.

Marwan Fayez vividly remembers the 10th of September, 1989. Still a teen, Fayez and his 11-year-old sister Sarah lost their mother after a mortar shell struck their West Beirut flat. “I am still suffering until till this day. No words can describe the pain,” he said.

Fayez’s mother was killed during Michel Aoun’s proclaimed “War of Liberation” against the Syrian Army that left thousands dead and wounded in a ruthless bombing campaign. The “War of Liberation” ended with Aoun fleeing to Paris, where he remained in exile until 2005.

Roland, 35, also remembers the day in 1990 that changed his life forever when a bomb ripped their house apart, leaving his father dead. His family were living in an area controlled by Aoun’s forces during hostilities between the general and then-LF militia leader Geagea. Unlike Marwan, who was away when his flat was targeted, Roland and his family were at home when their father, the family’s breadwinner, lost his life.

After the Civil War, Geagea was arrested in 1994 and charged with the assassination of National Liberal Party chief Dany Chamoun and his family, in addition to the bombing of a Church north of Beirut. Geage was released 11 years later, having received an official pardon.

Many Civil War victims decry how former militias and warlords, including Jumblatt and Speaker Nabih Berri, still dominate the Lebanese political landscape.

“I cannot believe what is happening in Lebanon these days,” said Huda Hashisho, whose father Muheiddine was kidnapped by the LF militia in 1982.

“How can warlords have such audacity and be so rude?” Hashisho asks.

“They should both stay away [from politics]”, Fayez says of the two controversial figures. “The country is full of good people.”

During a joint news conference with Jumblatt, Helou said he was from “the school of dialogue” and would “be open to everyone.”

“Many speak of a strong president. A strong president is one who brings together, and not one who has fans. Strength comes in sitting down at the dialogue table with everyone,” he said.

The announcement of Helou’s candidacy comes one day before Parliament convenes to elect the next head of state.

The house has a constitutional deadline of two months – from March 25 to May 25 - to elect the next head of state.

At least two-thirds, or 86 of the 128 member Parliament, need to be present to secure a quorum for the session to elect a president, which is convened by the speaker. The voting requirements are lowered to an absolute majority, or at least 65 votes, in the event there is no winner in the first round.

If lawmakers fail to elect a new president within the constitutional deadline, the prerogatives of the president are temporarily taken over by the Cabinet, until the election of a new head of state.

Although legislators are expected to make their way to Parliament Wednesday, it is not clear whether a new president will be elected in the first round.