BEIRUT: Maronite Cardinal Beshara Rai Tuesday called on Speaker Nabih Berri to convene Parliament as soon as possible in order to begin voting on a possible candidate for the presidency, ruling out a vacuum in the country’s top Christian post.
In his first television interview on a local channel, Rai said Bkirki would only nominate a candidate if lawmakers failed to agree on a name despite beginning early consultations.
The patriarch, who is entering his fourth year as the head of the Maronite church, also spoke about Hezbollah’s arms, saying the party’s arsenal should not remain outside the jurisdiction of the state and should be part of a national defense strategy.
Although he declined to comment on Hezbollah’s military role in Syria, a point of national contention, Rai said the party should distance Lebanon from regional conflicts.
“I call on Speaker [Nabih] Berri to convene a series of parliamentary sessions starting Monday and as soon as possible, regardless of quorum,” Rai told LBCI in an interview with Marcel Ghanem who was joined by three newspaper editors.
“He [Berri] should not start consultations with the blocs first, but he should convene a legislative session so that lawmakers can name preferred candidates,” he added.
Tuesday marked the start of the two-month constitutional period for Parliament to elect a new president, during which the speaker is expected to convene Parliament to nominate a candidate for the post.
President Michel Sleiman's six-year term ends on May 25.
Berri has formed a committee of lawmakers from his parliamentary bloc to hold consultations with various political factions over the spring election. The speaker has yet to schedule a date for the first house session.
No political party has officially put forward any nominations, but Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea said Tuesday he was a "natural" candidate for the presidency because he represented most Christians.
The patriarch proposed a series of legislative sessions in which MPs would cast their votes for a candidate until one nominee received the majority vote.
Although Rai refused to name a preferred candidate, he said he was preparing a list of names based on national surveys to be announced by Bkirki in case lawmakers failed to nominate someone.
“If lawmakers fail to agree on a president after they begin parliamentary voting next week, I will propose a name that the people want depending on a survey,” he said.
The patriarch also voiced his opposition to amending the Constitution to nominate Army Gen. Jean Kahwagi or Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh for the post. Under the Constitution, a candidate running for presidency should resign from their public post six months before the Constitutional deadline.
Both Salameh and Kahwagi remain in their posts.
“First and foremost, we should respect the Constitution and not think about amending it. But if lawmakers reach a dead end in their negotiations and agreed on [Kahwagi or Salameh], then so be it,” he said.
The Maronite Church usually has major influence in the election of a new president, but Rai repeatedly said it was not his prerogative to nominate a president.
He declined to say whether he would veto an elected president.
“We need a president that will be able to reunite us and boost Lebanon’s status in the Arab world and the international community … a modern person who knows how to manage the affairs of state,” he said, adding that only the Lebanese should decide who they want for president, “not the Iranians, Saudis or Americans.”
Rai also said that he asked the ambassadors of several countries to help Lebanon hold its presidential election without delay by distancing the country from the Syrian crisis.
“[During a meeting], I asked the envoys to distance Lebanon from the crisis in Syria, the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, and the Iranian-Saudi issue, so we can hold the presidential election,” he said.
“We spoke clearly with the envoys and they agreed to remove Lebanon from the Syria conflict,” Rai added.
Rai also spoke about Hezbollah’s arsenal and clarified previous remarks he had made over the issue when he linked the group’s arsenal to Israeli occupation.
“When [former French] President Nicolas Sarkozy said the Lebanese were hostage to Hezbollah, I disagreed with him, and said it was rather a problem … and you [Western countries] are capable of resolving it,” Rai said of his 2011 meeting with Sarkozy in Paris.
“Hezbollah says Israeli’s occupation of Lebanese territory is the reason for their arms … I told Sarkozy that the international community was not pressuring Israel to withdraw and thus validating Hezbollah’s point,” he said.
Rai said Hezbollah’s arms should be under the control of the state similar to the Lebanese Army.
“We cannot accept that Hezbollah’s arms do not have a link to the state and it is not acceptable for the party to decide to wage war and control the fate of the Lebanese,” he continued.
“I will say this to Hezbollah, and [it] already knows this, that they should not decide on war and peace independently; there is a need for a national defense strategy [to incorporate its weapons in the state] and to distance Lebanon from conflicts,” Rai added. “Hezbollah is not better than the Army, which is under the control of the state, and the use of [the military’s] arms requires a political decision.”
Sleiman has proposed a national defense strategy that would allow Hezbollah to keep its arms but place them under the command of the Lebanese Army, which would have exclusive authority to use force.
The arms of the resistance would be used by the state until the Army can take over all defense responsibilities.