lebanese soldiers 298.88.
(photo credit: AP)
Hizbullah and its opposition allies blocked the election of Lebanon's next president Tuesday, boycotting a parliamentary session to prevent the backers of the anti-Syrian government from choosing a head of state from their own ranks.
But hardliners on the government side vowed to force through their choice if a compromise is not reached by the next parliament session on Oct. 23, a step that would escalate the political standoff and - some fear - split the country between two rival governments.
The attempt to elect a president is the latest potentially dangerous turn in Lebanon's monthslong power struggle between the US-backed government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora and the opposition, led by Hizbullah, an ally of Syria and Iran.
Tuesday's gathering at parliament took place under tight security after last week's assassination of Antoine Ghanem, a lawmaker from Saniora's ruling coalition, in a bomb blast. It was the latest in a series of slayings of anti-Syrian figures, and coalition members fear more, blaming Syria for the slayings, an accusation Damascus denies.
Thousands of soldiers and police clamped down on downtown Beirut around the building, escorting lawmakers as they pulled up in vehicles with dark-tinted windows - many coming from a heavily guarded hotel nearby where they have been staying for protection.
Saniora's allies are determined to install an anti-Syrian in the presidency, hoping to end one of the last vestiges of Damascus' political control in Lebanon. The outgoing president, Emile Lahoud, whose term ends Nov. 24, is a staunch ally of Syria, which dominated Lebanon for nearly 30 years until 2005.
But Hizbullah and its allies in the opposition have vowed to block any candidate they don't approve - and Tuesday they followed through on their threat to prevent the two-thirds quorum of the 128-seat legislature required for a vote.
When a parliament official rang a bell three times to call lawmakers into session, the 68 members of the government coalition were in the chamber, but most opposition members stayed out in the hallways. Pictures of Ghanem and other lawmakers slain since 2005 were put up on vacant seats in the chamber. The session was postponed until Oct. 23.
Both sides quickly began talks to try to find a compromise candidate.
For the first time in months, opposition-aligned Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri met with Saad Hariri, leader of the largest anti-Syrian bloc. Hariri described the meeting as "positive," saying he will continue contacts to reach an agreement on the election of "a president for all the Lebanese."
In the parliament building, where a session has not been held for months because of the political deadlock, the atmosphere was generally amicable, with lawmakers from both camps hugging and chatting.
But tempers remained high.
Ahmed Fatfat, a Cabinet minister from the majority, warned that the next session would be decisive, repeating threats that if the opposition boycott continues, the pro-government majority will hold a vote without quorum and approve their own candidate.
"If no consensus on a president is reached, the majority will elect a president," Fatfat told The Associated Press as he was leaving the Parliament building. "We will not accept the presidency to be left vacant."
Walid Jumblatt, a leading member of the majority, was more hardline. "I don't believe in dialogue with murderers," he told AP Television, referring to those in the opposition allied with Iran and Syria.
Government supporters accuse Syria of seeking to end the ruling coalition's small majority in parliament by killing off lawmakers. They warn of a "new war" by Syria to undermine Lebanon.
Hizbullah lawmaker Hussein Haj Hassan, in turn, accused Saniora's top ally, the United States, of pushing the prime minister to reject any compromise, and he vowed the opposition will continue its boycott. "Of course, without agreement we will not guarantee a quorum," he said.
Three pro-government figures and one opposition member are among more than a dozen candidates vying for the presidency, which under Lebanon's sectarian power-sharing system must go to a Maronite Christian. Attempts to find a compromise have been difficult, with few prominent figures seen as neutral - though army chief Gen. Michel Suleiman has been touted by some as a possibility.
If the parliament cannot elect a president by Nov. 24, Saniora and his Cabinet would automatically take on executive powers.
If that happens - or if the ruling coalition forces through their own choice - the opposition is urging Lahoud to appoint an alternative government before he leaves office.
That could result in two rival administrations, a grim reminder of the last two years of the 1975-1990 civil war during which army units and the public administration split up.