BEIRUT — Lebanon's parliament elected Michel Aoun as the country's president on Monday, ending a more than two-year vacuum in the top post and a political crisis that brought state institutions perilously close to collapse.
The 81-year-old former army commander is a strong ally of the militant group Hezbollah. He secured a simple majority of votes in the house after a chaotic session that saw several rounds of voting because extra ballots appeared in the ballot box each time. He garnered 83 votes out of 127 lawmakers present at the session.
Members of parliament broke out in thunderous applause after Aoun finally was declared president by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri.
Aoun's supporters across the country erupted in cheers as they watched the proceedings on huge screens set up in the streets. Brief celebratory gunfire could also be heard in the capital.
The Christian politician's election is seen by many as a clear victory for the pro-Iranian axis in the Middle East, giving a boost to Hezbollah and the Shiite Lebanese group's ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Aoun has a wide support base, mostly among Lebanon's educated youth, but is a divisive figure in Lebanon for his role in the 1975-90 civil war.
Lebanon has been without a head of state for 29 months after President Michel Suleiman stepped down at the end of his term in May 2014.
Since then, 45 sessions to elect a new leader have failed due to political infighting that led to of a lack of quorum as Aoun's block and allied Hezbollah lawmakers boycotted the sessions because his election was not guaranteed.
In the end, it took an about-face by former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Lebanon's Saudi-backed main Sunni leader, who formally endorsed Aoun for president last week — reportedly in exchange for Aoun promising him the position of prime minister.
After being sworn in as Lebanon's 13th president, Aoun pledged political and economic reform and urged a "real partnership" among notoriously divided Lebanese political factions.
Aoun led his forces through some of the deadliest battles of Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war and has repeatedly shifted alliances to survive the country's notoriously thorny politics — briefly rising to become prime minister in 1988.
In 1990, Syrian troops forced an embattled Aoun from Lebanon's Baabda palace and pushed him into exile in France, where he remained for 14 years.
Aoun received a hero's welcome from supporters in Beirut's Martyrs Square when he returned in 2005.
Less than a year later, he struck his alliance with Hezbollah, positioning himself squarely in the pro-Damascus camp that later mobilized to try to topple the U.S.-backed government at the time.
Aoun's move to Hezbollah drew anger from the United States which believed he had given political cover for it to keep its weapons and "moved a long way" from his support for a U.N. resolution that sought the disarmament of all militias in Lebanon, according to a U.S. diplomatic cable published by Wikileaks.
In the 2006 cable, then U.S. ambassador Jeffrey Feltman concluded Aoun's presidential ambitions were "overriding any other concern." But Aoun told the Americans the alliance was an attempt to draw Hezbollah into the political mainstream.