Former Lebanese army chief Michel Suleiman was sworn in as the country's new President Sunday, following a long-delayed vote in parliament. His election brings an end to the political crisis that has paralyzed Lebanon's government for the last 18 months, and recently set off the worst internal violence since the end of the civil war. Suleiman has appealed for national unity. VOA Correspondent Challiss McDonough has more from Beirut.
One by one, the members of parliament slid their ballots into a glass-sided box. When the counting began, one by one, officials read the same name on almost every one.
Former army commander Michel Suleiman was elected president with 118 out of 127 votes.
Six deputies abstained, two voted for other politicians, and one voted for "Rafik Hariri and the martyrs," a reference to the slain former prime minister and other Lebanese leaders who have been assassinated over the past three years.
The lack of a unanimous vote, even though Mr. Suleiman was the consensus candidate agreed to by all the political parties, illustrates the fragility of the compromise that brought him to the presidency. It also indicates how tough some of the challenges facing the new president will be as he attempts to build consensus and lead the country out of its political stalemate.
Wearing a dark suit and a gray tie, Mr. Suleiman took the oath of office to rousing applause. Most of Lebanon's political leaders welcomed his election as a step toward ending the political crisis that has dragged on for the last year an a half and erupted into deadly clashes earlier this month. The vote came after the rival factions reached a power-sharing deal at talks in Qatar on Wednesday.
In his inaugural address to parliament, the new president called on Lebanese to unite and work toward reconciliation.
He said, "We have paid dearly for our national unity. Let us preserve it, hand-in-hand."
The new president called for better relations with Syria, which should please the opposition, but also backed the U.N. tribunal investigating the Hariri assassination, which the government supports. Those two issues were not resolved by the talks in Qatar.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem was in the audience for the vote. Such high-level Syrian officials have rarely visited Lebanon since Syrian troops withdrew from the country in 2005 after Hariri was killed.
The international backers of both sides have welcomed the Doha accord that led to the president's election, which had been postponed 19 times as the factions fought over the shape of the next government.
The Doha agreement gives Hezbollah and its opposition allies enough cabinet seats to veto any government decision. That is widely seen as a setback for the ruling coalition and for the Bush Administration, which had opposed that opposition demand for the last year and a half.
But President Bush issued a statement congratulating President Suleiman on his election, and saying he hopes the Doha accord "will usher in an era of political reconciliation to the benefit of all Lebanese."
European leaders and the U.N. Secretary General also welcomed the election, and pledged to support the new president. French President Nicolas Sarkozy said he hopes to visit Lebanon soon to strengthen ties.
After he took the oath of office, people flooded into the streets to celebrate in Mr. Suleiman's home village of Amchit, waving Lebanese flags and singing along as loudspeakers blared songs celebrating his election.
The president's first task will be forming a new government. The old cabinet, led by Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, will remain in place until that happens, but Mr. Siniora is not expected to keep his job. Rafik Hariri's son, Saad Hariri, is believed to be the leading contender to replace him.