Lebanon News

Salam looks to bypass presidential vacuum

Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun (C), Marada Movement leader Sleiman Frangieh and Marada official Youssef Saadeh meet in Rabieh, Wednesday, June 11, 2014. (The Daily Star/FPM office, HO)

BEIRUT: Prime Minister Tammam Salam will present a new proposal to break a looming deadlock in the executive branch over the vacant presidency, as European and Arab diplomats urged Lebanon to swiftly elect a new head of state.

European Union and Arab League foreign ministers meeting Wednesday in Athens called on Lebanese parties to quickly elect a president.

“The ministers underlined the importance of Lebanon to uphold its long-standing democratic tradition, working to ensure that the presidential election takes place as soon as possible,” said the joint declaration, adopted at a summit of Arab League and EU top diplomats.

Lebanese MPs have repeatedly failed to elect a president since the end of former President Michel Sleiman’s six-year term on May 25.

The declaration stressed the need for collective support of the Lebanese Armed Forces, to help it “protect Lebanon and ensure security throughout Lebanese territory.” It also welcomed the convening of a conference to support the Army in Rome on June 17.

The European and Arab call came as Salam readied a controversial proposal aimed at heading off a potential Cabinet paralysis.

The new initiative would allow Cabinet to pass any resolution with a two-thirds majority, The Daily Star has learnt.

In the absence of a president, the Cabinet is only entitled to pass resolutions on issues of critical national interest, such as declaring war, signing international treaties or passing a budget.

The resolutions must also have the support of two-thirds of ministers.

But under Salam’s initiative, the Cabinet would be able to rule on all issues as long as there is a two-thirds majority in support of the measures.

The presidential vacuum has left Lebanon embroiled in a constitutional and political debate that threatens the functioning of the rest of the state.

The Future Movement, along with a number of Christian MPs, are boycotting legislative sessions in Parliament until a president is elected, arguing that passing laws without a head of state is unconstitutional.

Threats have emerged of a widening boycott that would similarly lead to a deadlock in Cabinet, undermining the fragile “national interest” government led by Salam.

Under Salam’s initiative, if a resolution passes, all ministers must sign the decree whether or not they backed it. If a minister refuses to sign the decree, it would be implemented anyway after 15 days.

The plan is intended as a stopgap measure to prevent a total halt in the Cabinet’s work amid the ongoing stalemate over the presidency, but is likely to spark controversy.

Legal sources who studied the Constitution say such measures violate the document because they alter the enshrined mechanisms of the executive branch.

But the sources said Salam would propose the measures anyway as a consensus option that adheres to the spirit rather than the actual text of the Constitution.

For now, all parties have agreed that Salam has the power to invite the Cabinet to convene. Salam has agreed to provide the ministers with the agenda of the meeting 72 hours in advance, allowing them to make comments or amend the agenda. The controversy over the boycott widened Wednesday as the Future and Amal Movements traded barbs over Speaker Nabih Berri’s suggestion that the Future bloc had orchestrated a “coup” by rendering Parliament meaningless with their absence from sessions, and scuttling a deal over wage hikes for public sector workers.

The head of the Future bloc MP Fouad Siniora said that no deal had been reached with Berri on the controversial wage hike.

In a statement aimed at the speaker, Siniora said there was no agreement on the size of the wage hike for the bloc to “rebel against,” and talks were continuing “to suit legitimate demands and what is beneficial for the economy in fitting with the financial capacity of the Lebanese state to afford this without additional risks.”

Berri disclosed details of an alleged agreement over the salary scale bill on the sidelines of the failed Parliament session to elect a president Monday. The standoff over the bill has often escalated into strikes, but its opponents say it will bankrupt the treasury.

Berri was quoted as saying the agreement was reached during a meeting at his office in Parliament attended by Salam, Siniora and MP Bahia Hariri.

But according to visitors, Berri was surprised by the change in the Future Movement’s position on attending the Parliament session Tuesday, saying their lack of attendance amounted to “a coup against Monday’s agreement,” and that the bloc and its allies were aiming to “disrupt” the sessions.

Parliament failed to meet Tuesday to vote on the wage hike – a key demand by the Union Coordination Committee for holding the official exams, prompting Berri to postpone the session to June 19.

Siniora said that the Future bloc was ready to engage in talks, but was not willing to agree to “the destruction of Lebanon’s finance and economy as a result of populist policies or regional policies hiding behind justified social demands.”

Sources close to Berri declined to comment on the controversy, but Amal MP Abdel-Majid Saleh hit back at Siniora, saying he was unable to accept “honesty” and that his bloc was responsible for prolonging the vacuum.

Meanwhile, presidential maneuvering continued with Marada Movement leader Sleiman Frangieh once again expressing support for Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun as the consensus president for the presidency.

“I came here today to express my support for the General,” Frangieh said following talks with Aoun in Rabieh. “We are with him in this battle.”

“At the end of the line, we are going to have a strong Maronite president. But we want a consensus president,” he told reporters.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 12, 2014, on page 1.




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