Aoun's presidency ends leaving power vacuum in crisis-hit Lebanon

  • Hundreds of supporters gather at palace to say farewell
  • He departs with no successor, and caretaker cabinet
  • Critics blame him for calamities including port blast

BAABDA, Lebanon, Oct 30 (Reuters) - Michel Aoun, the 89-year-old Christian president who presided over Lebanon's cataclysmic financial meltdown and the deadly Beirut port blast, left the presidential palace on Sunday with his term ending, leaving a void at the top of a failing state.

Parliament has so far been unable to agree on a successor in the role, which is reserved for a Maronite Christian and has the power to sign bills into law and appoint new prime ministers.

That leaves Lebanon in the unprecedented situation of having a presidential vacuum and a caretaker cabinet with limited powers, as the premier-designate has been unable to form a government for six months.

In an interview with Reuters a day before his departure, Aoun said Lebanon was sliding into "constitutional chaos", given the lack of clarity over what prerogatives the caretaker cabinet and the parliament would each have.

On Sunday, hundreds of his supporters gathered at Baabda Palace to say farewell, wearing the orange associated with his Free Patriotic Movement party and carrying portraits of him as president and from decades ago when he served as army commander.

Therese Younes, 16, said she had backed Aoun since she was eight and was sad to see him go.

"If I was 18 years old, I would have left the country. There's no Lebanon left after Michel Aoun," said Younes.

Lebanon's parliament has convened four times to try to elect a successor but no candidate has won a majority.

Top Maronite Christian cleric Patriarch Beshara al-Rai on Sunday blamed politicians and parliamentarians for leaving the "presidency in a vacuum, either deliberately, or out of stupidity or selfishness".

DIVISIVE LEADER

Aoun is a deeply divisive figure, adored by many Christians who viewed him as their defender in Lebanon's sectarian system but accused by critics of enabling corruption and helping armed group Hezbollah gain influence.

During Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war, he served as commander of Lebanon's army and the head of one of two rival governments.

After 15 years in exile, he returned to Beirut and allied with Hezbollah, which lent the armed group important Christian backing and ultimately helped him become president in 2016.

His six-year term saw Lebanon's army fight off Islamist militants on the Syrian border in 2017 with Hezbollah's help and pass a new electoral law in 2018.

In his final week, he signed onto a U.S.-mediated deal delineating Lebanon's southern sea border with Israel, paving the way for possible maritime gas discoveries.

His fans hail those achievements but critics say they were overshadowed the 2019 financial meltdown, which has pushed more than 80% of the population into poverty, and the massive 2020 blast at the Beirut port that killed more than 220 people.

"He was by far the worst president in Lebanon's history" said Michel Meouchi, a 41-year-old lawyer and father. "I prefer a void in the presidency to him."

Aoun later said he had known about the chemicals stored there and told other authorities to take action. Victims' families said he should have done more.

He declined to comment on the blast on Saturday and said his presidential powers were not wide enough to address the economic crisis.

He left the palace a day before his term officially ends, arriving at his residence in Rabieh where he was greeted by Gebran Bassil, his son-in-law and the current head of the FPM.

"Gebran after his father-in-law!" said the waiting crowds.

Bassil, a parliamentarian with presidential ambitions, was sanctioned by the United States in 2020 for alleged corruption but denies the charges.

Aoun on Saturday said the sanctions would not stop Bassil from becoming president and said they could be "removed" if he were to be elected.

Reporting by Maya Gebeily and Laila Bassam; Writing by Maya Gebeily and Tom Perry Editing by Dominic Evans, Alison Williams and Frances Kerry

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.