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Rai seeks amendment to keep outgoing presidents in caretaker status

Former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, left, meets with former President Amin Gemayel in Beirut, Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014. (The Daily Star/Dalati Nohra, HO)

BEIRUT: Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai called Thursday for a constitutional amendment to keep the outgoing president in power in a caretaker status until a successor is elected, a move apparently aimed at avoiding a vacuum in the country’s top Christian post.

Speaker Nabih Berri, meanwhile, called for a new Parliament session Tuesday, Sept. 2, to elect a president amid signs that the session is doomed to fail like previous ones in the absence of an agreement among the rival political parties on a consensus candidate to succeed former President Michel Sleiman, whose six-year tenure ended on May 25.

As the three-month-old presidential election impasse dragged on with no solution in sight, Rai renewed his call on Parliament to convene and elect a president, saying that lawmakers should also work amend the Constitution to allow the outgoing president to stay in power until a successor is elected.

“We have always said that it is the duty of Parliament to convene and elect a president. After the election of the president, I hope that the first thing [lawmakers] will work on is to make the presidential candidacy mandatory as is the case with the Parliament candidacy,” Rai told reporters at Beirut airport before leaving for the Vatican to brief the Holy See on the conditions of Christians in the Middle East and the presidential deadlock.

He was apparently referring to Free Patriotic Movement leader MP Michel Aoun, who has not officially announced his candidacy for the presidency, even though he is viewed as the Hezbollah-led March 8 coalition’s undeclared nominee.

Similarly, Rai said, lawmakers should seek to avoid vacancy in the presidential post at the end of the president’s six-year term by amending the Constitution to allow the outgoing president to remain in his post until a successor is elected.

Under the Lebanese Constitution, the Cabinet is vested with the president’s prerogatives when the presidency is vacant.

While the Constitution allows a resigned Cabinet to serve in a caretaker capacity until a new government is formed, it makes no mention of a caretaker president.

Any constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds majority (86) of the legislature’s 128 members, which is hard to secure given the sharp split between the March 8 and March 14 parties.

Neither side can garner a majority vote in Parliament to forge ahead with any constitutional amendment, let alone secure the required two-thirds quorum for any Parliament session to elect a president.

Rai called on parliamentary blocs not to wait for “a secret word” from foreign powers, namely the United States, France, Iran and Saudi Arabia, to elect a president. “Let’s get rid of this farce and waiting for a secret word from whatever it comes,” he said.

The patriarch dismissed an agreement among the rival factions on a presidential candidate before the voting as “big heresy.”

He added that it was a “disgrace” for the Lebanese and “a violation of the Constitution” for the country to be left without a president for more than three months.

Parliament on Aug. 12 failed for the 10th time in four months to elect a new president over a lack of quorum, raising fears of a prolonged vacancy in the presidency seat.

The presidential stalemate has enhanced the possibility of a new extension of Parliament’s mandate, which expires on Nov. 20, in a bid supposedly aimed at averting a vacuum in all constitutional institutions.

During his five-day visit to the Vatican, Rai will report to the pope on the outcome of his trip to Iraq earlier this month and the recommendations made at a meeting of Eastern churches on the plight of Christians suffering persecution by takfiri groups in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, Kataeb Party leader Amine Gemayel called for the salvation of the country by electing a president who would inspire confidence to all Lebanese factions and would be able to defend the country’s higher interests at the international level.

Asked if he would run for the presidency, Gemayel, who served as head of state from 1982 to 1988, told reporters after meeting the new Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdel-Latif Derian: “We want to salvage the republic. Therefore, we have to think of a president who can reassure all the Lebanese ... and be a strong interlocutor in all international forums to maintain Lebanon’s sovereignty and stability.”

Asked if he sees a solution to the presidential deadlock, he said: “We are all expected to close ranks and devise solutions to protect Lebanon in this phase. This is the responsibility of everyone, politicians and spiritual leaders, to help end the presidential stalemate.”

Former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora called after meeting Gemayel for the swift election of a president.

“We discussed many issues that concern the Lebanese, the most important of which is the quick election of a new president for Lebanon,” Siniora, the head of the parliamentary Future bloc, told reporters after the meeting.

Siniora criticized the persistent boycott of Parliament sessions by lawmakers from Aoun’s bloc, Hezbollah’s bloc and its March 8 allies, which thwarted a quorum to elect a president.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 29, 2014, on page 3.

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