French minister urges Lebanon to swiftly elect new president

BEIRUT (AP) — French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna on Friday urged Lebanon to swiftly elect a new president or risk plunging the poverty-stricken country into a deeper political crisis.

Colonna’s remarks in Beirut came after Lebanon’s divided parliament twice failed to elect a successor to Michel Aoun, with no majority candidate in the running. It took two years for lawmakers to reach a settlement and vote Aoun into power in 2016. Meanwhile, Lebanon’s government has been functioning under a limited caretaker capacity for months as political parties struggle to agree on a new leadership lineup.

Electing a president and appointing a new government amid one of the world’s worst-ever economic spirals is a critical priority, Colonna said. Aoun’s six-year term ends on Oct. 31.

“Lebanon cannot handle the danger of a vacuum in its political leadership,” Colonna told reporters at Rafik Hariri International Airport after meetings with Lebanon’s leaders, including Aoun and caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati.

“In the current framework,” she added, “it would be worrying and dangerous to impose a political crisis on the Lebanese people.”

The tiny Mediterranean nation’s economy over the past three years has spiraled, plunging three-quarters of its population into poverty following decades of corruption and financial mismanagement. While the country has reached a tentative agreement with the International Monetary Fund, Lebanon has struggled to implement a series of reforms that would ultimately improve transparency and restructure its bust banks.

So dire is Lebanon’s outlook that it’s suffered a spate of raids by desperate depositors on their banks, which have imposed strict withdrawal limits on savings since late 2019.

Aoun Thursday night announced that Lebanon had officially approved a U.S.-mediated maritime border demarcation proposal with Israel following months of indirect talks. The country hopes that delineating its disputed waters would pave the way for setting up an oil and gas industry to generate much-needed revenue for the economically-collapsed country.

While Colonna celebrated the agreement, describing it as a “historic deal,” she said it should not overshadow the urgency of reaching an IMF-approved program to restructure its economy and regain investor confidence.

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