BEIRUT, Lebanon — Michel Aoun, a charismatic retired general, polarizing Christian politician and ally to Hezbollah, was chosen president of Lebanon on Monday morning, ending a two-and-a-half-year vacuum that had tested the country’s ability to function without political leadership.
Mr. Aoun, 81, has developed a fervent political base of supporters who consider him a last hope for the country’s dwindling Maronite Christian community. But his detractors are just as passionate, blaming him for allying with his onetime enemies, the Syrian government, and with the militant group Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran and Syria and listed as a terrorist group by the United States.
The Lebanese Parliament met in a ceremonial session in Beirut on Monday to formally anoint Mr. Aoun, who secured the requisite number of ballots after four rounds of voting. Gunfire and honking broke out in East Beirut after Mr. Aoun passed the voting threshold in Parliament, and the proceedings were broadcast on every major TV network.
The voting itself made clear the condition of a legislature that failed on 45 previous occasions to even muster a quorum for a presidential ballot. On Monday, the speaker of Parliament had to cancel two rounds of voting simply because someone had slipped an extra ballot into the transparent box. The whole process took two hours and included votes cast for the pop star Myriam Klink and Zorba the Greek.
For all that, Mr. Aoun’s ascendancy was assured last week, when the main Lebanese political parties finally brokered a deal that would put Mr. Aoun, Hezbollah’s favored candidate, in the presidential palace. That agreement gave the prime minister’s post to Saad Hariri, a Sunni Muslim and former prime minister who is preferred by Saudi Arabia. Top positions in Lebanon are allocated by religious sect in a delicate balancing act.
The resolution of Lebanon’s painfully drawn-out leadership battle marks a small victory for Iran on the score card of its regional struggle against Saudi Arabia, which had indirectly pushed for a different presidential candidate, Suleiman Frangieh.
The choice kicks down the road any decisive action to revamp the dysfunctional consensus model for Lebanon’s political system, which enables any of the country’s sectarian warlords to veto government decisions. As a result, Lebanon has been unable to effectively address any of its recurring crises, including questions as diverse as how to manage millions of refugees or how to pick up the garbage.
“I believe that for the time being and for the foreseeable future, nothing is going to change,” said Ramez Dagher, an analyst who runs a blog about Lebanese politics called Moulahazat. Unless there are other secret agreements, Mr. Dagher said, Mr. Aoun comes into office unusually free from constraints, other than choosing Mr. Hariri as prime minister.
“He is in a better position to maneuver,” Mr. Dagher said. “But that might also mean that the deadlock might be transferred from the presidential elections to the government formation and everything else that comes afterward.”
In a combative inaugural address to Parliament, Mr. Aoun vowed to defend Lebanon from terrorism, strengthen the military and take measures to push Syrian refugees to return home.
“Lebanon is walking through a minefield but is still at a safe distance from the flames in the region,” he said. “One of our priorities is to prevent igniting a spark and to adopt an independent foreign policy.”
Known to his followers as “the General,” Mr. Aoun has pursued the presidency for decades. In the 1980s, during Lebanon’s civil war, he served as chief of staff of the army and led one of two rival Lebanese governments. During the last two years of that war, from 1989 to 1991, Mr. Aoun’s forces clashed with rival Christian militia groups and with the Syrian military — a round of fighting that did nothing to alter the final outcome of the conflict but was one of its most destructive and violent chapters. Mr. Aoun boycotted the peace talks that ended the war.
Mr. Aoun won much of his popular support because of his reputation for independence. He has railed against Lebanese corruption and the tradition of warlords’ handing political parties from father to son. The political party that Mr. Aoun founded in 2005 upon return from a 15-year exile in France, the Free Patriotic Movement, immediately emerged as the dominant Christian party.
Soon after, Mr. Aoun rocked Lebanon’s political landscape by making peace with Syria, his longtime enemy, during a visit to Damascus. In 2006, he formed an alliance with Hezbollah.
As his party garnered greater power, however, Mr. Aoun’s maverick reputation took a beating. His son-in-law, Gebran Bassil, has been accused of graft and corruption. But that did not stop Mr. Aoun from handing over the party’s leadership to Mr. Bassil in 2015, in an opaque transition that many party activists decried as antithetical to the party’s stated democratic principles.
Lebanon has reeled under the strain of the civil war next door in Syria, which at times has spilled over the border. At least 1.5 million displaced Syrians have fled to Lebanon, meaning that one in three residents of Lebanon is a refugee. And the country’s main political factions support opposing sides in Syria.
The previous president, Michel Suleiman — also a former army chief of staff — finished his term in May 2014. Since then, Lebanon has navigated a series of political crises with a caretaker cabinet but with no president.
The major political parties in the country had been deadlocked in the search for a consensus president. They failed to negotiate a new election law, which had been another major sticking point, but finally reached a deal on Mr. Aoun and Mr. Hariri, while leaving the rest of Lebanon’s affairs in limbo. The parties reached the agreement after years of discussions, in close consultation with representatives from foreign powers including Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United States.
Traditionally, Lebanese politics has reflected regional and international power struggles, most notably the competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia for influence across the Arab world. But, some analysts say, those two regional powers largely lost interest in Lebanon as their power struggle intensified in Syria. The Saudis grew disenchanted with Mr. Hariri and his political vehicle, the Future Movement, which steadily lost influence over its Sunni constituents after the assassination of Mr. Hariri’s father, Rafik, in 2005.
“As the theater of conflict between the stakeholders in the Middle East has shifted to places like Syria and Yemen, Lebanon has become less significant,” said Elias Muhanna, a historian at Brown University and an expert on Lebanese politics. “The reins have slackened between Lebanon’s political parties and their regional backers, and the country has drifted aimlessly for the past five years.”
Iran and its local ally, Hezbollah, have had the upper hand in Lebanon since Saad Hariri was forced to resign as prime minister in January 2011.
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