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Lebanon News

March 8 blank ballots set to spoil first vote

  • PSP leader Walid Jumblatt, right, listens as MP Henri Helou speaks during a press conference in Beirut, Tuesday, April 22, 2014. (The Daily Star/Mahmoud Kheir)

BEIRUT: Despite a daylong flurry of political activity and intense meetings by various blocs to decide on their choices for the presidential election, a Parliament session will not be able to elect a new head of state Wednesday as the rival factions remain split over Lebanon’s next president.

“The right conditions for a local and regional consensus over a new president are not ripe yet,” a senior political source told The Daily Star.

A two-thirds quorum of the 128-member legislature is expected to be easily secured for the Parliament session, as parliamentary blocs from the March 8 and March 14 parties as well as centrist lawmakers have promised to attend.

The March 14 coalition will vote for Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, the only candidate from the coalition to have announced he would run for president.

Even the Kataeb Party, which was widely expected to nominate its leader, former President Amin Gemayel, for the presidency, decided after a meeting Tuesday to attend the session and vote for Geagea.

The March 14 leaders reiterated their support for Geagea’s candidacy after an extraordinary meeting Tuesday night.

“After consulting with all political parties, figures and national leaders, the March 14 leaders reaffirmed their support for Dr. Samir Geagea’s candidacy, saying this candidacy represents the principles on which the Cedar Revolution, the independence uprising and the March 14 forces are founded,” said a statement issued after the coalition meeting held at former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Downtown Beirut residence.

In the first round of voting, Geagea is expected to garner the votes of around 50 MPs, well below the 86 votes that are required to win the presidency. The rival Hezbollah-led March 8 coalition has not named its own candidate –widely expected to be Free Patriotic Movement leader MP Michel Aoun – opting instead to cast blank ballots during Wednesday’s session.

The decision to cast blank ballots was made following meetings held by the parliamentary blocs of Speaker Nabih Berri and Aoun.

The March 8 move is apparently intended to send a clear message to their rivals, essentially seeking a deal to reach a compromise president who is not affiliated with either political coalitions.

Centrist lawmakers, including former Prime Minister Najib Mikati and MPs from Progressive Socialist Party leader MP Walid Jumblatt’s parliamentary bloc, will either cast blank ballots or vote for MP Henry Helou, who has been nominated by Jumblatt’s bloc. Helou is expected to get the votes of about 15 MPs.

Mikati, after meeting Helou and Health Minister Wael Abu Faour from Jumblatt’s bloc Tuesday night, said he and his ally, Tripoli MP Ahmad Karami, would vote for Helou.

Judging by the outcome of Tuesday’s meetings and consultations held by parliamentary blocs on both sides of the political fence, signs indicate that Berri is expected to adjourn the parliamentary session in the hope that a local and regional consensus over a new president could be reached to break the deadlock that is threatening to throw the country into a presidential vacuum.

“Berri will hold successive sessions until May 25 to elect a president in the hope of averting a vacuum in the presidency,” a March 8 source said. President Michel Sleiman’s six-year term in office expires on May 25.

The parliamentary Future bloc also renewed its backing for Geagea’s candidacy on the eve of Wednesday’s Parliament session.

“The bloc supports Geagea’s candidacy, especially since his platform reflects the aspirations of the majority of the Lebanese for a sovereign, free and independent state which has the exclusive authority over all Lebanese territories,” the bloc said in a statement after a meeting chaired by former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora at Hariri’s Downtown Beirut residence.

Earlier Tuesday, Aoun’s parliamentary Change and Reform bloc decided to cast a blank ballot during the session.

“We will attend tomorrow’s Parliament session, and we will cast a blank ballot,” MP Emile Rahme told reporters after the bloc meeting chaired by Aoun in Rabieh. Aoun has said he would only run for the presidency as a “consensus candidate.”

For his part, Jumblatt said his National Struggle Front bloc nominated Helou, describing the Aley lawmaker as a “voice of moderation.”

Speaking to reporters after his bloc’s meeting, Jumblatt denied Helou’s nomination was meant as a “political maneuver,” saying he believed his lawmaker could help safeguard the country.

In a clear sign Gemayel would not enter the presidential race at this stage as announced last week, MP Elie Marouni said after a party meeting chaired by Gemayel that Kataeb lawmakers would attend the legislative session and vote for Geagea.

Geagea later telephoned Gemayel to thank him for the Kataeb Party’s support for his candidacy for the country’s top Christian post.

An LF delegation headed by MP Strida Geagea handed Berri a copy of Geagea’s political platform during a meeting in Ain al-Tineh. Geagea said the speaker praised her husband’s agenda, adding that the LF expected its head to do well in Wednesday’s session.

“We expect Geagea to get no less than 50 votes for the first round of election. ... We have 37 votes from the Future bloc, eight votes from the Lebanese Forces along with several other independent lawmakers,” the MP told reporters after the meeting. “As a March 14 coalition, we insist on having a single candidate. Our candidate, as March 14 forces, is Geagea and it is too early to talk about other options.”

She also thanked Telecoms Minister Boutros Harb, once thought to be a presidential hopeful, for contacting Geagea and giving his support.

Earlier in the day, Berri held talks with MP Michel Murr and the head of the Lebanese Democratic Party, MP Talal Arslan, as well as Abu Faour who headed a delegation from Jumblatt.

Murr said he and MP Nayla Tueni would attend Wednesday’s morning session, adding that he expected a quorum would be reached.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 23, 2014, on page 1.
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Summary

Even the Kataeb Party, which was widely expected to nominate its leader, former President Amin Gemayel, for the presidency, decided after a meeting Tuesday to attend the session and vote for Geagea.

In the first round of voting, Geagea is expected to garner the votes of around 50 MPs, well below the 86 votes that are required to win the presidency. The rival Hezbollah-led March 8 coalition has not named its own candidate –widely expected to be Free Patriotic Movement leader MP Michel Aoun – opting instead to cast blank ballots during Wednesday's session.

The decision to cast blank ballots was made following meetings held by the parliamentary blocs of Speaker Nabih Berri and Aoun.

Centrist lawmakers, including former Prime Minister Najib Mikati and MPs from Progressive Socialist Party leader MP Walid Jumblatt's parliamentary bloc, will either cast blank ballots or vote for MP Henry Helou, who has been nominated by Jumblatt's bloc.

Aoun has said he would only run for the presidency as a "consensus candidate".

In a clear sign Gemayel would not enter the presidential race at this stage as announced last week, MP Elie Marouni said after a party meeting chaired by Gemayel that Kataeb lawmakers would attend the legislative session and vote for Geagea.


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