BEIRUT: Rival politicians are gearing up for horse trading to reach agreement over a compromise president after Parliament failed Wednesday to elect a new head of state in the first round of voting.
“Following Parliament’s failure to elect a president, rival factions will engage in tough bargaining in an attempt to agree on a compromise president,” a political source told The Daily Star.
“The internal horse trading will go on in tandem with attempts to reach a regional consensus deemed essential for facilitating the Lebanese presidential election.”
During Wednesday’s Parliament session attended by 124 lawmakers – only four MPs were absent – no candidate secured the two-thirds of the vote needed to win, while March 8 lawmakers cast blank ballots in what appeared to be a message to their rivals, suggesting the need for a deal over a compromise president.
Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, the March 14-backed candidate, won 48 votes against 52 blank ballots cast by March 8 lawmakers, while 16 lawmakers voted for MP Henry Helou from Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt’s bloc. One MP voted for the Kataeb Party leader, former President Amine Gemayel, and seven ballots were ruled invalid.
Shortly before the results of the first round of voting were announced, many March 8 lawmakers walked out of the Parliament hall in a clearly calculated move to thwart a quorum for a second round of voting.
The March 8 walkout prompted Speaker Nabih Berri to adjourn the Parliament session until April 30, giving rival parliamentary blocs a one-week reprieve in the hope a local and regional consensus could be reached to avoid a presidential vacuum.
Berri said that in addition to Geagea and Helou, there were three other declared independent candidates: Tracy Chamoun, daughter of the late Dany Chamoun; Bechara Abi Younes and Nadine Moussa.
He said a two-thirds quorum, or 86 MPs, was still required in the second round of voting to elect a president, adding that a candidate needed only a simple majority of 65 votes to win.
Berri convened Parliament for the first round of voting at 12:05 p.m. after 124 lawmakers showed up for the session, much more than the two-thirds of the 128-member legislature required for a quorum.
Prime Minister Tammam Salam, a Beirut MP, and a number of his Cabinet ministers also attended the session. Salam, who belongs to the March 14 coalition, and ministers who are also MPs voted.
Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun, Geagea’s Christian political archfoe, defended the walkout of members of his bloc and March 8 lawmakers of the session, saying it was intended to give a chance for an agreement on a consensus president.
“It turned out that there was no chance for an agreement on any of the candidates in the second round of voting,” Aoun told reporters after the session. “Therefore, we withdrew from the hall in the hope that we could reach a sort of unanimity on a single candidate in the next session.”
Aoun, the March 8 coalition’s presumed presidential candidate, said he would only run for president as a “consensus candidate.”
Asked whether he would declare his candidacy for the presidency before next week’s Parliament session, he said: “Until now, we are still waiting for consensus.”
Salam called on Parliament to elect the “best president” for Lebanon during the two-month constitutional period, which expires on May 25, when President Michel Sleiman’s six-year term in office ends.He praised the government’s role in preserving security, which he said allowed Parliament to hold its first round of the presidential election.
“The Parliament session is part of political consensus that has prevailed in the country since the Cabinet formation amid a positive atmosphere that the Cabinet has promised in its policy statement to provide to hold the presidential election,” Salam said in a statement.
The March 8 lawmakers voting with blank ballots drew fire from Geagea and his wife, LF MP Strida Geagea.
The LF leader vowed to stay in the presidency race despite the outcome of Wednesday’s voting. He praised what happened in Parliament as “a major victory for democracy, despite irresponsible behavior by some.”
“I will definitely continue with my candidacy,” Geagea told reporters at his residence in Maarab, north of Beirut, where he followed the Parliament session through big TV screens.
“We will continue with the election process until it leads to its natural outcome, the election of a president for Lebanon, rather than the selection of a president by foreign powers,” he said.
Geagea criticized the Hezbollah-led March 8 coalition for not announcing its own presidential candidate: “The other [March 8] side does not want a presidential election. It did something repulsive and used the names of martyrs it raised from graves to use them in its battles.”
He was referring to ballots that included the names of figures killed during the 1975-90 Civil War whose relatives accuse the LF leader of their murder, including Dany Chamoun and former Prime Minister Rashid Karami. Geagea has denied involvement in the killings.
Geagea’s wife criticized the blank ballots, saying she had hoped the name of a strong March 8 candidate would have been put forward instead.
“It would have been better if a clear candidate was running against us. ... They should have voted for a strong candidate,” Geagea told reporters following the session. “A strong candidate would have been someone like Gen. Michel Aoun.”
“We will continue in the battle. ... We will come to [next week’s] session strongly as a united March 14 team,” she said.
MP Geagea also commented on the ballots that included the names of dead figures whose relatives blame her husband for their killings.
“This is irresponsible behavior and political bankruptcy. ... We know how they died and who was responsible for that,” she said.
Jumblatt said his bloc’s nomination of Helou for the presidency would not change. “We do not have any other candidate. Henry Helou will remain our candidate,”he told reporters in Parliament.
Helou vowed to stay in the presidential race until the end.
“The most important thing is to save the country through a person who can bring everyone together,” he said.