Support for Aoun widens days before presidential vote

BEIRUT: Progressive Socialist Party leader MP Walid Jumblatt announced Friday his support for Free Patriotic Movement founder MP Michel Aoun’s election as president, the latest sign that the former general is headed to win the presidential race in the first round of voting Monday with a two-third majority in parliament.

Jumblatt is the latest political leader to endorse the former general, weeks after the latter secured the backing of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Future Movement.

In the latest expression of allegiance to Hariri and his decision to back Aoun, lawmakers from the Future Movement met Friday to reaffirm their commitment to voting for the former general.

Rumors had previously emerged that a significant number of lawmakers from the Future Movement parliamentary bloc would not vote in favor of Aoun, in defiance of Hariri. The bloc’s meeting Friday put an end to these rumors.

Tripoli MP Mohammad Qabbara, who was among those rumored to oppose Aoun, appeared on TV Friday to read the Future Movement parliamentary bloc’s statement in support of Hariri’s decision to back Aoun.

The Future Movement parliamentary bloc had convened just hours after Saudi Arabia’s Arab Gulf Affairs Minister Thamer al-Sabhan held talks with Hariri, the kingdom’s key ally in Lebanon.

Sabhan then left Hariri’s residence in Beirut to meet with Jumblatt and later Aoun, in a move that numerous analysts say reflect the kingdom’s tacit approval of the former general’s election.

Later in the day, Aoun visited Jumblatt’s residence in Beirut to thank the PSP leader for his support.

Jumblatt, Hariri and Speaker Nabih Berri had previously nominated MP Suleiman Franjieh for the presidency. While Hariri decided to withdraw his support for the Marada Movement leader in favor of Aoun, Berri remains steadfast in his support for Franjieh and has publicly voiced his opposition to Aoun’s election.

Berri had previously tied the election of a president to a comprehensive political deal that includes an agreement over a new parliamentary electoral system, the makeup of the upcoming Cabinet and the distribution of ministerial portfolios.

Berri arrived Friday to Beirut coming from Geneva where he was attending an international union of parliaments meeting. Jumblatt visited Berri upon his arrival to Beirut shortly before returning to his residence to welcome Aoun.