BEIRUT: Lebanese leaders scrambled Thursday to prevent the presidential vacuum from crippling government work as the international community threw its weight behind Prime Minister Tammam Salam’s Cabinet while calling for a swift election of a new president.
Salam, facing a split within his Cabinet over how to exercise full executive powers, including the president’s prerogatives, met with Speaker Nabih Berri to discuss the government’s work while the presidency seat remains vacant.
Parliament has failed in five attempts to choose a successor to former President Michel Sleiman after his six-year term ended on May 25.
In addition to the Cabinet’s work, Berri and Salam discussed Parliament’s legislative role and the presidential election, the National News Agency said.
Salam did not speak to reporters after the 75-minute meeting held at Berri’s residence. A minister close to Salam said the speaker and the premier had agreed on boosting the role of state institutions while efforts were underway to elect a president.
“The Berri-Salam meeting will set the stage for a breakthrough in the political stalemate and for holding legislative sessions,” Environment Minister Mohammad Machnouk told The Daily Star. “The two leaders are keen on enhancing the role and work of institutions.”
He said contacts would be held in the next few days with parliamentary blocs in a bid to create “a positive atmosphere” to resolve the crisis emanating from the vacancy in the country’s top Christian post.
Asked to comment on fears that the presidential vacuum might affect government work, Machnouk said: “The Cabinet is determined to find a mechanism to govern in line with Article 62 in the Constitution.”
The Constitution vests full executive powers, including those of the president, with the Cabinet in the case of a presidential vacuum.
Health Minister Wael Abu Faour warned after meeting Berri against paralyzing the work of the Cabinet and Parliament under the pretext of a presidential vacuum, saying the Constitution was “very clear” with regard to Cabinet assuming presidential duties. “We are in predicament and we must not deepen it with additional divisions or additional problems in institutions,” Abu Faour told reporters after meeting Berri in Ain al-Tineh.
“Failure to elect a president should not lead us to other failures and the disruption of other institutions, namely Parliament, by stopping legislation and the Cabinet by stopping to manage the people’s affairs and the state.”
“We should not let this vacuum turn into a rolling ball of fire to burn the remaining institutions,” he said.
Berri met separately Wednesday with Free Patriotic Movement leader MP Michel Aoun and Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk to discuss the Cabinet’s work amid the presidential vacuum.
Parliamentary sources in the FPM said the Berri-Aoun meeting was more than reconciliation as the two men outlined their positions on pressing issues.
Aoun emphasized to Berri the FPM’s keenness to pass the public sector’s salary scale bill, indicating his bloc would most likely attend next Tuesday’s legislative session, the sources added.
On the government’s role, the sources said there appears to be a general consensus that the Cabinet would exercise the president’s prerogatives and a decree to this effect would be signed at the next Cabinet meeting.
According to the sources, Aoun and Berri have agreed that the situation was extremely delicate and that the presidential vacuum would cripple state institutions if the stalemate dragged on without a solution. Both said a new president should be elected no later than Aug. 20.
The sources confirmed that Aoun still wants to give time for the contacts between the FPM and the Future Movement to bear fruit, despite opposition from many in his party. The sources pointed out that Berri’s position on the presidential issue would not change, and in the end he would support a candidate backed by the March 8 coalition.
The country’s major Christian parties, the FPM, the Kataeb Party and the Lebanese Forces, have vowed not to attend legislative sessions in Parliament until a president is elected. They argue that Parliament should only handle urgent matters.
The parliamentary Future bloc said the Cabinet should continue its work in running the country, while efforts should be intensified to elect a president.
Commenting on the ongoing debate over the Cabinet’s role in filling the presidential vacuum, the bloc said in a statement after its weekly meeting: “The bloc considers that part of the Cabinet’s essential work is to constantly seek to create the appropriate atmosphere to quickly elect a president in order to end the period of the vacancy in the presidency post.”
“But the bloc also sees at the same time that the Cabinet’s work should continue to run the country’s affairs,” it added.
The heads of the Maronite League, the General Maronite Council and the Maronite Diaspora Institute urged after a closed meeting chaired by Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai lawmakers to immediately elect a new president.
The participants warned against “increased danger as a result of the repercussions of the presidential vacuum on several institutions, particularly Parliament and the government.”
Meanwhile, U.N. Special Coordinator in Lebanon Derek Plumbly underlined the importance that the government continued its work in line with the Constitution, once again urging lawmakers to quickly elect a president.
“The additional message is also clear, our support for Prime Minister Salam and his government, and the importance in accordance with the Constitution of it being able to address the challenges that Lebanon faces and to work closely with its partners at this time,” Plumbly told reporters after meeting Salam at the Grand Serail.