Oct 20, 12:15 PM EDT

Lebanon's ex-PM Hariri backs Hezbollah's ally for president

BEIRUT (AP) -- Former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who heads the largest bloc in parliament, on Thursday formally endorsed a leading Christian politician and strong ally of the Hezbollah group to become the next president in what many hope wil end a 29-month presidential vacuum.

Hariri's backing of Christian leader Michel Aoun is likely to open the road to the presidential palace for the 81-year-old politician, increasing chances that the majority of the 128-member parliament will vote for him.

There have been media reports of a deal between the two men stipulating that once Aoun becomes president, he will choose Hariri as prime minister.

Lebanon has been without a head of state since the term of President Michel Suleiman ended in May 2014. Since then, parliament failed more than forty times to elect a new leader because of political disagreements on who should hold the country's top post.

Hariri's move is likely to anger many Sunnis in the country who are opposed to Hezbollah and Aoun and don't want an ally of Syria to become head of state. Hariri is also facing stiff resistance from parliament's powerful speaker, Nabih Berri.

"I announce today my decision to back Gen. Michel Aoun for president," Hariri said in a televised speech. "This is a decision coming from the necessity to protect Lebanon, the political system, state and people."

Hariri's decision comes at a time when the billionaire businessman is facing a serious financial crisis, with his business in Saudi Arabia struggling. Saudi Arabia posted a $98 billion budget deficit last year and expects an $87 billion deficit for 2016 mostly because of low oil prices.

With Hariri's backing, Aoun has guaranteed the votes of his own 21-member bloc, 13 legislators from Hezbollah, eight from the right-wing Lebanese forces and the majority of Hariri's 34-member block. Some members of Hariri's bloc have said they will not vote for Aoun.

The next parliament session to elect a president is scheduled for Oct. 31 and will be the 46th since May 2014. The other candidate is politician Suleiman Frangieh, one of the strongest allies and a close personal friend of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

As a result of the presidential crisis, the parliament has extended its own term twice, and it will now run until May 2017.

Aoun has been one of Hezbollah's strongest allies since 2006. The militant group has boycotted parliament sessions over the past two years because it was not guaranteed Aoun would be elected.

Aoun is a controversial figure in Lebanese politics, although he has a strong base of support from many Christians and Shiite Muslims. He was army commander and prime minister toward the end of Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war. He used to be one of Syria's harshest enemies in Lebanon and fought a war against the Syrian army in the late 1980s that killed and wounded thousands of people.

After Syria pulled out of Lebanon in 2005, Aoun returned from exile in France, reconciled with the Syrian leadership and visited Assad in Damascus.

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