BEIRUT: Parliament failed Wednesday to elect a new president for the second time in a week, heightening fears of a vacuum in the presidency as the rival factions remained at odds over a compromise candidate, political sources said.
“Unless there is a regional and international accord over a compromise president, local players will not be able to vote on a consensus president on time to avoid a presidential vacuum,” a political source told The Daily Star.
Separately, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who met at his residence in Paris with Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai, called for combined efforts by all the rival Lebanese factions to hold the presidential election on time. He strongly rejected the possibility of a vacuum in the presidency.
The meeting with Rai was the latest flurry of activity by the head of the Future Movement to enhance the chances of holding the presidential polls on time.
Hariri, according to a statement released by his office, told Rai: “If it is true that all political parties reject a vacuum, as they say they do, and they are committed to holding the presidential election at its constitutional deadline, then this means that the presidential election should happen and that Lebanon and the Lebanese are capable of avoiding a vacuum.”
Hariri also spoke by telephone with Kataeb Party leader Amine Gemayel to brief him on the results of his talks the day before with Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil.
Bassil’s meeting with Hariri in Paris was part of the ongoing consultations between the Future Movement and MP Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement on the presidential election. Hariri and Bassil agreed to work on ensuring the presidential vote takes place on time to avoid a vacuum in the presidency.
French President Francois Hollande spoke by phone with Progressive Socialist Party leader MP Walid Jumblatt and called for the presidential election to be held on time.
The election of a president should be “a gateway to further stability and understanding among the Lebanese,” Hollande said, according to a statement released by the PSP’s media office.
However, Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk sounded skeptical that the presidential vote could be held on time in the absence of a regional and international accord over a compromise president.
“I don’t think the Lebanese can agree alone on the election of a president. The situation still needs a regional consensus and international consultations that so far do not exist,” Machnouk said in an interview with Future TV Wednesday night.
Machnouk said that four regional and international powers could help steer Lebanon to the safety shore: Saudi Arabia, Iran, the United States and France.
“Last-ditch attempts will be made to elect a president before the end of the constitutional period,” Machnouk said, referring to May 25, when President Michel Sleiman’s six-year term in office expires.
Machnouk, a key figure in the Future Movement, said his favorite and permanent candidate is former Minister Jean Obeid, whose name along with that of Army commander Jean Kahwagi have emerged as possible consensus candidates.
Speaker Nabih Berri adjourned Wednesday’s session by one week until May 7 after not enough lawmakers showed up to secure a two-thirds quorum of the legislature’s 128 members required to begin the session. The session was boycotted mainly by lawmakers from Aoun’s parliamentary Change and Reform bloc, Hezbollah and its March 8 allies.Only 76 MPs, mostly from the March 14 coalition, Berri’s bloc and Jumblatt’s bloc, were present in the general assembly hall by 12 p.m. prompting Berri to delay the session by half an hour in order to allow more time for lawmakers to arrive.
The need for an agreement beforehand on a consensus president was underlined by a number of lawmakers from Hezbollah and Aoun’s bloc, who came to Parliament but stayed away from the session in a clear attempt to thwart the two-thirds quorum of 86 MPs required for any electoral session.
“We are not thwarting [a quorum]. In order to secure a quorum, there should be consensus [on a presidential candidate]. Consensus does not appear in the offing,” Hezbollah MP Nawwar Saheli told reporters.
A similar view was echoed by MP Nabil Nicolas from Aoun’s bloc. “It’s not a matter of preventing [a quorum], but reaching a conciliatory and consensual president in order to avoid a provocative president,” he said.
Geagea slammed the March 8 boycott of the electoral sessions, warning that the presidential vote was in jeopardy.
“The presidential election is in serious danger. We will either reach a vacuum in the presidency, or the other [March 8] side will seek to elect a [weak] president,” Geagea told MTV Wednesday night.
He urged the country’s top Christian political and spiritual leaders, including Rai, to prod Christian MPs to attend the Parliament electoral sessions.
During last week’s Parliament session, no candidate secured the two-thirds vote needed to win during the first round of voting. Geagea won 48 votes against 52 blank ballots cast by lawmakers from Aoun’s bloc and March 8 parties. Sixteen lawmakers voted for MP Henry Helou from Jumblatt’s bloc and one for Amine Gemayel.
Before adjourning the session, Berri held separate meetings Prime Minister Tammam Salam, former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, Jumblatt, and Education Minister Elias Abu Saab. Abu Saab was dispatched by Aoun to brief Berri on the Hariri-Bassil meeting in Paris.
Hezbollah’s deputy leader Sheikh Naim Qassem said conditions are still not ripe for electing a new president and called for an agreement beforehand on a compromise candidate.
“It was clear that the first session was a theatrics, indicating that the circumstances are not conducive for electing a president,” Qassem told a rally in Beirut’s southern suburbs. “This means that there would be no use of a second, third or fourth session if the situation remains as it is.”
He added that the best way to elect a new president would be by a prior agreement by the March 8 and March 14 parties. “The nature of the country and its sectarian system do not allow one group to choose a president ... so the best way is to reach an agreement.”
Meanwhile, Salam will chair a Cabinet session at the Grand Serail Friday. No appointments in key positions are expected to be approved during the meeting, a source close to Salam said.