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Sleiman hints may back nonpartisan Cabinet
President Michel Sleiman and Maronite Cardinal Beshara Rai during Christmas Day Mass in Bkirki, Wednesday, Dec. 25, 2013. (The Daily Star/Dalatinohra-HO)
President Michel Sleiman and Maronite Cardinal Beshara Rai during Christmas Day Mass in Bkirki, Wednesday, Dec. 25, 2013. (The Daily Star/Dalatinohra-HO)
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BEIRUT: President Michel Sleiman hinted Wednesday he may back the formation of a nonpartisan government, in a direct challenge to Hezbollah, saying arguments for a Cabinet exclusively made up of politicians were invalid.

Sleiman, who spoke after meeting Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai, also urged that the 2014 presidential election take place on time and said if Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam’s Cabinet failed to garner enough support in Parliament a new government would need to be formed.

“There is a problem with interpretation,” he told reporters after the conclave with Rai in Bkirki, when asked about Hezbollah’s objection to the formation of a fait accompli Cabinet.

“What does it mean when we say fait accompli or a national unity government?” he asked.

“Is it ‘true’ politicians are the ones who unite in Lebanon, that they are the ones who unite the nation?” he asked, in an apparent reference to Hezbollah’s calls for a national unity government with political representation from different parties.

“Who said this was the case? Why? If we say it’s a political Cabinet does that make it a unity Cabinet and if not then it is not a unity [Cabinet]. No, this is not true and the interpretation is incorrect.

“What is meant by fait accompli or a government of national interest? There is a dispute over interpretation and how to apply them on the ground,” he said.

“There is democracy and we have a Constitution so let’s apply it and democratic and constitutional means alone dictate constitutional deadlines and political decisions to be taken,” Sleiman added.

The government formation, now deadlocked for more than nine months, is one among several crucial issues the president and Hezbollah are at odds over.

Hezbollah, which heads the March 8 alliance, wants a national unity government based on the 9-9-6 formula and has warned against the formation of a fait accompli Cabinet.

March 8 parties argue previous fait accompli Cabinets in Lebanon have failed and after the Taif Accord – Lebanon’s amended Constitution – violate the document’s preamble on the need for coexistence.

March 14 groups, on the other hand, have opposed the calls by their rivals and called for the formation of a neutral, nonpartisan Cabinet to oversee the presidential vote scheduled in May.

Asked whether Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah had overstepped the president’s prerogatives when the Hezbollah chief recently warned against the formation of fait accompli Cabinet, Sleiman said: “The powers of the president are derived from the Constitution and not political parties or leaders.”

“I received clarification that [Nasrallah’s remarks] were not a threat but on the contrary they were facilitation for the president – full stop,” Sleiman added.

The Lebanese president also dismissed any link between the government formation process and the Geneva II conference on Syria that is expected to be held next year.

The 32-month war in Syria and its repercussions on Lebanon’s security and next month’s Geneva II conference figured high in talks Monday between Sleiman and Hezbollah MP Mohammad Raad, a source at Baabda Palace told The Daily Star.

Sleiman, whose term ends in May 2014, also warned Wednesday that the time was running out for the election of a new president, which he said needed to be done before the formation of the next Cabinet.

“I consider March 25 to be a red line. The government needs to have been formed by that time and from today there needs to be serious thinking about [forming] the Cabinet,” Sleiman said.

“Do not forget that March 25 is the start of the two-month [constitutional] period for the presidential election. A Cabinet needs to be formed. We will be entering 2014 in a month. We need to form a Cabinet that agrees on a policy statement and heads to Parliament for a vote of confidence,” he said.

“This will need at least one month,” he added.

“And let’s assume it [Cabinet] does not win the vote of confidence, therefore we will need [time] to form another government,” he said before attending a Christmas Day Mass headed by Rai.

Following the Mass, Rai and Sleiman greeted well-wishers including Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, who reiterated his opposition to Hezbollah’s Cabinet demands, describing the 9-9-6 formula as a “crippled one.”

He also said that “a constitutional government is one which both the president and prime minister-designate sign the decrees for.”

Geagea also voiced support to Sleiman, saying the president was being targeted for his national stances.

“Since the Taif Accord, the presidential elections were merely compromises, except in the case of President Michel Sleiman, and for this reason we think he is being targeted because of his national stances,” he told reporters.

The LF leader also said he and Rai were in agreement on the need for lawmakers to attend the Parliament session for electing the next president.

“There was full understanding [with Rai] on the need to revive the post of president and ensure it is truly effective and therefore during the presidential election all lawmakers must do their part and go to Parliament ... to elect a new head of state,” he said.

On Tuesday, Rai urged MPs to ensure the timely election of a new president capable of bridging the gap between political rivals and stressed the need for a Cabinet that was in line with the Constitution.

Rai also said the new president needed to revive the prerogatives of the seat of the presidency and adopt a policy of distancing Lebanon from regional conflicts while restoring Lebanon’s role at the regional and international levels.

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