(photo credit: AP)
Rival Lebanese leaders were in last-ditch efforts to find a compromise candidate for the presidency Thursday with no sign of a solution a day ahead of a constitutional deadline, leaving Lebanese despairing and fearful of turmoil.
Parliament is scheduled to convene at 1 p.m. Friday to pick a successor for pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud - only 11 hours before his term ends. Three previous attempts failed because of disagreements between the country's feuding pro- and anti-Syrian politicians over a replacement.
Failure to elect a new president on time could lead to a power vacuum, or two rival governments, much like during the last two years of the 1975-90 civil war.
As the country marked its Independence Day holiday Thursday, a mood of pessimism settled over Lebanese as efforts to find some sort of agreement appeared to evaporate.
"The last day before zero-hour: A miracle or power vacuum," read the headline of Lebanon's leading An-Nahar daily.
Al-Mustaqbal daily, owned by legislator Saad Hariri who heads the anti-Syrian majority in parliament, accused Syria of "blocking" a compromise through its Lebanese allies.
Hariri and opposition leader Michel Aoun, a Christian who is allied with the pro-Syrian Shiite Muslim Hezbollah group and is himself seeking the presidential post, held a rare meeting Wednesday night but failed to break the deadlock.
The meeting took place following a telephone call to both leaders by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has been leading mediations between the two camps through his foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner.
With only few hours left, international mediators were returning to Lebanon for last minute efforts to find a compromise. Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos arrived overnight and Massimo D'Alema of Italy was arriving later Thursday to join Kouchner, who has been in Lebanon since Monday.
The three European countries are the top contributors to the 13,600-strong UN peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon.
The controversial Aoun has kept his name in contention for the presidency as other names touted as compromises have been blocked over recent days. Michel Edde, a former culture and information minister, appeared at one point to be gaining traction but has been reportedly rejected by Hariri's camp as too pro-Syrian. A one-time Hariri ally who has recently taken a more neutral stance, Robert Ghanem, has been rejected by the opposition.
Accepting Aoun as president would be a hard pill to swallow for the Hariri camp. Though he was long an opponent of Damascus, Aoun has sided with Hezbollah, an ally of Syria and Tehran, throughout Lebanon's political crisis the past year.
The choice of president has been deadlocked amid a power struggle between the US-backed government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora and the opposition, led by Hezbollah, an ally of Syria and Iran.
Saniora's camp wants to put an anti-Syrian figure in the post to replace Lahoud, a staunch ally of Damascus. Saniora's supporters have a slim majority in parliament, but the opposition has called a boycott of sessions until an acceptable candidate is agreed on. Amid the boycott, a Sept. 25 parliament session failed to muster quorum and three other scheduled sessions have been postponed with no deal reached.
The anti-Syrian majority is threatening to elect a president by a simple majority if no quorum is reached, a move that would likely create turmoil and increase the risk of street violence.
In the absence of a president, the government takes executive power. But Lahoud has vowed not to hand his authorities over to Saniora's administration, considering it unconstitutional after all five ministers of the Shiite Muslim community quit a year ago.
Possible scenarios include Lahoud handing over power to the military chiefs, creating a rival government to hand power to or even declaring a state of emergency - deepening the struggle with Saniora.
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