Lebanese parliament postpones session on electing a new president

Lebanon's factions deadlocked over a tangle of issues including an amendment to the constitution and the shape of a future government.

Aoun 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Aoun 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Parliament on Friday once more failed to meet on electing a new president, as Lebanon's factions deadlocked over a tangle of related issues, including an amendment to the constitution and the shape of a future government. Politicians have been moving toward a deal to name the army commander as president, a compromise to end the dangerous power vacuum since since President Emile Lahoud stepped down on November 23 with no successor. But installing Gen. Michel Suleiman as president requires an amendment to the constitution, which currently bars a sitting army commander from holding the presidency. The feuding factions cannot agree on how to change the constitution. In a perhaps even tougher obstacle, Christian opposition leader and presidential hopeful Michel Aoun is demanding a "political understanding" on a future Cabinet to replace that of Western-backed Prime Minister Fuad Saniora before he will allow a vote on Suleiman. The opposition demands 45 percent of the seats in the next Cabinet and a "compromise prime minister" to head the government, said Ibrahim Kenaan, a member of Aoun's 23-member mainly Christian bloc. Government supporters were refusing to discuss the demands, he said Thursday. The presidency is the latest crisis in Lebanon's yearlong political turmoil, caused by the power struggle between anti-Syrian politicians who hold a slim majority in parliament and back Saniora's government and the opposition, which is led by Iran and Syria's ally Hizbullah. Despite mediation by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and prodding from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the factions were still tied up in political wrangling Friday. Parliament had been due to convene Friday to begin the process of amending the constitution and voting on a president, who under Lebanon's system is chosen by the 128-member legislature. But when the body failed to reach the needed two-thirds quorum, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri put off the session until Tuesday. Parliament has failed several times since September to meet on the presidential issue because the opposition is boycotting the sessions, preventing quorum, until a deal is reached. Berri was meeting with the heads of the main blocs. A leading member of the anti-Syrian majority bloc in parliament, Telecommunications Minister Marwan Hamadeh, said lawmakers from both sides were holding "consultations" on how to amend the constitution. Hamadeh, speaking to The Associated Press on Friday, accused the opposition of seeking to "put up political conditions as a prerequisite for the election of Gen. Suleiman." Suleiman, seen as a neutral figure, emerged as a compromise candidate after months of disputes. But both sides must first work out a compromise over the mechanism of amending the constitution. By law, the government must request parliament make an amendment. But the opposition, including Berri, do not recognize Saniora's government after all five Shiite Muslim ministers resigned in November 2006. Voting for an amendment requested by the government would be tantamount to the opposition recognizing the legitimacy of the government and all its decisions in the last year, something the opposition has refused to do. Some in the opposition have demanded the Cabinet first resign and become a caretaker government before they would go along with an amendment. The parliamentary majority, on the other hand, refuses proposals for the legislature to amend the constitution by bypassing the Cabinet. An even tougher issue may be an agreement on the next government, particularly over the prime minister's spot. The majority in parliament insists the next government should be formed by the constitutional rules: The president appoints a prime minister backed by a majority of legislators. Many in the anti-Syrian bloc want to name their leader, Saad Hariri, as the next prime minister. But Aoun, a top Christian politician allied to Shiite Muslim Hezbollah, said Thursday there could be no parliament session on the president until a "political understanding" is reached on the next Cabinet. He argued that because he dropped his candidacy for president to support the compromise Suleiman, the majority bloc must reciprocate by dropping its right to name the prime minister to allow a compromise figure in that post. That would likely prevent Hariri from gaining the post. Aoun supporter Kenaan said Thursday that the majority bloc "has refused to discuss any political understanding ahead of the (presidential) election."