Lebanese presidential vote likely to be postponed again

Both majority and opposition camps trade sharp accusations, dashing hopes that a president could be elected before the end of the year.

Michel Suleiman 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Michel Suleiman 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
A fresh attempt by the sharply divided parliament to elect a Lebanese president was likely to be postponed for the ninth time Monday amid a political impasse that continues to hold up the army chief's election for the post. Army commander Gen. Michel Suleiman has won backing for the presidential post from both the anti-Syrian parliament majority and the opposition, which is led by the militant Hezbollah group. Parliament though must first pass a constitutional amendment that allows the head of the army to become president. But the amendment, as well as sharp political differences between the two camps, have been at the center of the latest political fight gripping Lebanon. Both the majority and the opposition camps traded sharp accusations in recent days, dashing hopes that a president could be elected before the end of the year. The post has been empty since November 23, when former pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud left office without a successor being elected. Lebanese newspaper reports Monday said mediators were involved in late night talks with leaders of both camps in an attempt to secure the election. Lawmaker Mustafa Alloush from the anti-Syrian parliamentary majority said talks centered on a new formula that would allow Suleiman to be elected without having to amend the constitution. He said, however, that he was not overly hopeful that it would work. "There is a 50-50 percent chance there would be an election today," he told The Associated Press. An official with Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement was also skeptical. "Until now there is no serious progress," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to give official statements. He said contacts were still under way. Monday's session comes amid international pressure to hold the election. US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch on a visit to Lebanon on Saturday urged the country's legislators to elect a new president, saying such a move "will restore dignity and respect" to the post. In Paris, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner predicted Sunday that the Lebanese parliament would not be able to choose a president Monday. "I think the choice will be postponed again," he said. Eight previous attempts to elect a president since September have failed, either because of an opposition boycott that prevented Parliament from convening the necessary quorum or because the session was postponed beforehand. The latest crisis has topped a yearlong political struggle between anti-Syrian politicians, who hold a slim majority in parliament and support the Western-backed Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, and the opposition, led by Iran and Syria ally Hezbollah. However, months of political deadlock seemed set to end when lawmakers on both sides agreed to back Suleiman as compromise president. But the 128-seat legislature needs to muster a two-thirds quorum to begin voting for president. The majority has 68 members and still needs support of some opposition parties for the quorum.