BEIRUT: Free Patriotic Movement leader MP Michel Aoun will launch an initiative to help break the monthlong presidential deadlock, Education Minister Elias Bou Saab said Sunday, as chances of electing a president at this week’s Parliament session appeared to be slim.
Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai, meanwhile, was reported to be planning to exert pressure on Maronite political parties to agree on a compromise president.
Progressive Socialist Party leader MP Walid Jumblatt left for Paris Sunday at an official invitation from French President Francois Hollande for talks on the election deadlock.
Bou Saab, who is affiliated with the FPM, said dialogue between the FPM and the Future Movement on the presidential election and other issues was ongoing.
“Gen. Michel Aoun will announce tomorrow [Monday] a specific vision to pull Lebanon out of the presidential vacuum deadlock,” Bou Saab told the Voice of Lebanon radio station. “We hope that [Aoun’s initiative] will be a step on the road to an accord among Christians that will lead to the election of a new president.”
Bou Saab did not give details of Aoun’s initiative. But sources close to the FPM leader told The Daily Star that Aoun would propose that the Lebanese people directly vote for a president in a bid to allow for fairer and more accurate representation, instead of having lawmakers choose the next head of state as stipulated by the Constitution.
Political sources said Aoun would also call for giving priority to holding parliamentary elections, scheduled in November, over the election of a president.
However, Aoun’s proposal for electing a president by a popular vote is unlikely to work because it would need a constitutional amendment. Furthermore, the election of a president by a popular vote has been proposed in the past by Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah but it was rejected outright by the March 14 coalition.
Speaker Nabih Berri rejected attempts to renew Parliament’s mandate, stressing that parliamentary elections should take place as scheduled. He was quoted by visitors as saying that if a new electoral law was not approved by November, he would support holding the elections based on the 1960 law.
Aoun, viewed as the Hezbollah-led March 8 coalition’s undeclared candidate for the presidency, has been holding contacts with the Future Movement through his son-in-law, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, in a bid to convince it to back him as a consensus candidate for the country’s top Christian post.
Bou Saab highlighted that Aoun was currently capable of communicating with various political parties.
He rejected arguments that, in light of serious security developments in the country as a result of violent spillover from Syria and Iraq, the best option was to elect a military or security figure.
“The presidential election issue is not linked to security events but rather it needs political consensus,” Bou Saab said.
Lebanon plunged into a presidential vacuum after Parliament failed in seven sessions since April 23 to choose a successor to former President Michel Sleiman, whose six-year term ended on May 25.
Berri has scheduled a new session Wednesday to elect a president but all signs indicate that Parliament will not be able to meet due to a lack of quorum, as had happened in previous sessions.
Lawmakers from Aoun’s bloc, Hezbollah and its March 8 allies have thwarted a quorum by boycotting Parliament sessions, apparently to pressure their March 14 rivals to reach agreement beforehand on a consensus candidate for the presidency.
Meanwhile, British Ambassador to Lebanon Tom Fletcher said his country was joining forces with the United States, France and Saudi Arabia to end the presidential void in Lebanon.
In comments published by Al-Mustaqbal newspaper Sunday, Fletcher said contacts had been made between the countries “to work toward ending the presidential void but without interfering in the process of choosing the next president.”
Fletcher said London, Paris, Washington and Riyadh had agreed to take up a neutral role and not interfere in the choice of the next president nor go into the game of names. He added that the election was a Lebanese domestic and sovereign issue and the international community must not interfere.
Fletcher noted that Rai had expressed his anguish as a result of the presidential vacancy during a meeting last week with the ambassadors of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.
Rai was reported to be planning to pressure Maronite leaders into agreeing on a compromise president in a bid to break the stalemate.
Sources close to Bkirki, the seat of the Maronite patriarchate, said Rai would urge Christian lawmakers to attend Wednesday’s Parliament session to elect a president and he would hold those who boycott it responsible for the deadlock.
The Vatican is also working to set the stage for the patriarch’s visit to the U.S. for consultations on the election, political sources said. The patriarch is also scheduled to visit Australia from Oct. 15 to Nov. 7.
A high-ranking Russia political delegation has met in the Vatican with a number of bishops to discuss the Christian presence and military conflicts in the Middle East, in addition to the presidential election in Lebanon, the sources said. They added that the bishops asked the Russian officials to help facilitate the election of a Lebanese president given the fact that Moscow maintains good ties with some countries that wield influence in Lebanon, namely Syria and Iran.
An envoy from the Vatican is expected to visit Lebanon this week to convey Pope Francis’ concern about obstructing the presidential election, the sources said.
Rai slammed Lebanese politicians, saying MPs had disappointed the nation by underestimating the need for a new president.
“The nation’s representatives and those backing them have been offering disappointment to Lebanon, its friends and its devotees,” Rai said in Sunday’s Mass at Saints Peter and Paul Church. MPs are behaving as if “not electing a president is a very normal thing that does not provoke any reactions from them or from the civil society,” he added.
Separately, Prime Minister Tammam Salam has called for a Cabinet session to be held Thursday at the Grand Serail, a ministerial source told The Daily Star. The source said 35 items are on the Cabinet agenda.