UN chief urges Lebanese leaders to elect new president on schedule

Ban to meet head of the influential Maronite Catholic Church before heading off to meet with Hizbullah officials.

ki-moon 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
ki-moon 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon held more talks with Lebanese leaders Friday to urge them to elect a new president in his mission to help break the deadlock over the crucial vote. Ban met with the head of the influential Maronite Catholic Church, Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, before heading off to meet with Hizbullah officials. Under Lebanon's political system, the president must be Maronite, the country's largest Christian sect. The church fears a power vacuum could threaten the Maronites' hold on the post. Upon his arrival in the Lebanese capital late Thursday, Ban urged Lebanon's deeply divided politicians to elect a new president with the "broadest possible acceptance" by the public, and to do it on schedule. His visit was the latest attempt by international officials to prod the country's feuding factions to agree on a candidate for the top post and avoid a major political crisis. His visit comes a week before parliament is to convene for another try to elect a president. Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema was scheduled to visit Lebanon Saturday for the same purpose. Parliament is supposed to pick a new president before the term of current President Emile Lahoud ends on Nov. 24. But the Western-backed ruling coalition and the Hezbollah-led opposition have been unable to agree on a candidate - sparking Lebanon's most serious political rift since the end of the 1975-90 civil war. The pro-Syrian opposition has been preventing the majority from pushing through a candidate by refusing to attend parliament sessions until a compromise is reached. The coalition is eager to put one of its own in place to replace Lahoud, a close ally of Damascus. Three parliament attempts to hold a vote have failed since September, and the legislature is to try again on Nov. 21. "The election of the new president should take place on time and in accordance with constitutional procedures," Ban said late Thursday. "In this endeavor, it is imperative that the parliament convenes in order to elect a new president. "The new Lebanese president should enjoy the broadest possible acceptance so that he or she can represent all Lebanese people," Ban said. Ban met with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, who is aligned with the opposition, and with legislator Saad Hariri, leader of the anti-Syrian parliamentary majority. He also met with western-backed Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, whose government has been locked for the past year in a fierce power struggle with the opposition led by the militant Hezbollah group, which is backed by Syria and Iran. A government official, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with government regulations, said Saniora and Ban discussed the presidential election, Israel's reconnaissance flights over Lebanon and the need to speed up an international tribunal to prosecute suspects in the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Failure to elect the next president could result in a power vacuum and possibly, in the formation of two rival administrations. The UN chief's visit follows that of French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who this week held marathon talks in Beirut with the rival factions.