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Still hope for presidential election?

Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah addresses his supporters via a screen during a memorial service in Beirut's southern suburbs, June 6, 2014. REUTERS/Hasan Shaaban

Despite an apparent deadlock over the presidential file, observers of the political scene have taken heart from a few promising indications of possible progress toward electing a new head of state.

Lebanon has reportedly been added to the agenda of Iranian-American talks to be held Monday and Tuesday in Geneva. Although the meetings will be dedicated to reaching an agreement over Iran’s nuclear program, the Lebanese election will reportedly be discussed on the sidelines, creating an opportunity for an international agreement.

However, the State Department’s announcement of the Geneva meeting coincided with Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah’s speech Friday, in which he advised the Lebanese not to count on a Saudi-Iranian deal to save them from presidential vacuum. “There is still no date [for such talks], and it is unknown whether they will happen soon or not, and if a line of negotiation was established, who says that the [Lebanese] presidential file is subject to negotiation?” he said during the televised address.

Political sources saw Nasrallah’s comments as a call for Lebanese to rethink the rules of the game when it comes to electing a president, and to take advantage of regional powers’ preoccupation with other issues to strike internal agreements and discuss specific names.

Despite appearances, Hezbollah has still not given up on running Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun for president, the sources said.

The sources also understood from Nasrallah’s tone that he was calling on the Lebanese either to reach a mutual understanding on the president or accept that the Cabinet will exercise the president’s duties for as long as it takes to strike an accord. The party, according to the sources, has no problem prolonging the presidential vacuum as long as it has governmental cover for its weapons and its troops in Syria.

For their part, sources close to the March 8 coalition saw Nasrallah’s comments in a positive light, particularly his urging of the various Lebanese political factions to get on with their negotiations without waiting for a regional deal.

The sources also pointed to the uptick in meetings between Future and the FPM. These meetings have reportedly expanded to include Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, as well as Nader Hariri, representing ex-premier Saad Hariri.

Officials from both sides have begun hinting at future collaborations on issues other than the election, including the salary scale, which had prompted both sides to boycott the last parliamentary session.

The sources added that the friendly meeting that recently took place between Aoun and Speaker Nabih Berri could be seen as an indicator of a serious endeavor to achieve a breakthrough. Although the two discussed future cooperation, Berri reportedly qualified his otherwise positive comments, saying that the two do not have to be “the closest of allies,” as they are already united by many issues, from their stance on the presidency to their shared belief in an effective state whose borders are guarded by the resistance, the legitimacy of which is enshrined in the Cabinet’s policy statement.

Berri reportedly advised Aoun to get close to MP Walid Jumblatt, who has rightfully earned the reputation of kingmaker, and Aoun agreed to approach Jumblatt and solicit his support.

Also, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s announcement that his country neither supports nor opposes any presidential candidate has helped fuel internal negotiations, the sources said. They also pointed to the absence of a confrontation between the U.S., Iran and Saudi Arabia over Lebanon.

A delegation representing Maronite institutions has also made overtures toward non-Christian leaders in an attempt to bridge the divide among Christians. Its expected visit next week with Berri and Prime Minister Tammam Salam, as well as some party leaders, to urge them to help strike a deal between the major Christian factions.

Finally, the sources cited reports of efforts by France and the Vatican to develop a solution to the presidential void that would be acceptable to all parties, preferably in the form of a moderate candidate whose precise specifications are being drawn up in diplomatic circles.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 09, 2014, on page 3.

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Summary

However, the State Department's announcement of the Geneva meeting coincided with Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah's speech Friday, in which he advised the Lebanese not to count on a Saudi-Iranian deal to save them from presidential vacuum.

Despite appearances, Hezbollah has still not given up on running Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun for president, the sources said.

Berri reportedly advised Aoun to get close to MP Walid Jumblatt, who has rightfully earned the reputation of kingmaker, and Aoun agreed to approach Jumblatt and solicit his support.

Also, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's announcement that his country neither supports nor opposes any presidential candidate has helped fuel internal negotiations, the sources said.


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