BEIRUT: Parliament’s failure Wednesday to elect a new president for the third time in a row pushed the politically divided country closer to a presidential vacuum and fueled Christian fears over the power-sharing formula.
Only 73 MPs showed up by noon, well below the required two-thirds quorum of the legislature’s 128 members, prompting Speaker Nabih Berri to adjourn the session until May 15. Attending lawmakers were mostly from the March 14 coalition, Berri’s bloc and MP Walid Jumblatt’s bloc.
As in the two previous sessions, Wednesday’s session was boycotted mainly by lawmakers from MP Michel Aoun’s parliamentary Change and Reform bloc, Hezbollah and its March 8 allies in a clear tactic aimed at pressuring their March 14 rivals to reach agreement beforehand on a consensus candidate for the presidency.
A March 8 source predicted that next week’s session would also fail to elect a president in the absence of a deal on a consensus candidate.
“After the May 15 session, Speaker Berri will resort to new tactics by convening Parliament every other day in an attempt to push the lawmakers from both sides into agreeing on a consensus candidate,” the source told The Daily Star.
The absence of a local and regional accord over a compromise president has raised fears that the country’s top Christian post would become vacant after President Michel Sleiman’s six-year term in office expires on May 25.
The influential Maronite Church, increasingly concerned about a vacuum in the presidency, has repeatedly called on lawmakers to elect a new president on time.
This was clearly reflected in a statement issued Wednesday by Maronite bishops who slammed MPs’ statements about a possible presidential vacuum and stressed the need for the election to be held on time.
“We are worried by statements by some lawmakers about a vacuum. It is as if they are announcing their own political deficiencies,” the bishops said in the statement after their monthly meeting chaired by Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai in Bkirki, north of Beirut.
“Lawmakers are duty-bound, by the mandate granted to them by the people, to elect a president according to the Constitution,” they said. The bishops urged Maronite leaders to commit to a deal reached in Bkirki in March that underlined the need to hold the presidential vote on time.
Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, the March 14-backed candidate for the presidency, slammed the absence of Christian MPs from the Parliament session, saying such a decision only hurt Christians in Lebanon and prevented the election of a “Lebanese-made” president.
“Again, a session to elect a president has been scuttled, thus putting the presidential election in serious danger,” Geagea told a news conference at his residence in Maarab. He described Parliament’s failure to elect a president as “a complete coup against our Constitution, parliamentary traditions and political history.”
“The boycott is not a constitutional right but a coup against the institutions and the state,” he said. “What March 8 is doing is an attempt to agree on a candidate behind closed doors and via deals, which means marginalizing the presidency and weakening the Christians’ status.”
He scoffed at the March 8 argument that it was seeking a consensus president. “Their [March 8] equation is either a March 8 president or a vacuum,” he said.
Geagea appealed to Christian and Muslim religious leaders, including the Maronite patriarch, to press the boycotting MPs to attend the sessions. Geagea’s wife, MP Strida Geagea, urged the March 8 coalition to announce its own candidate rather than obstruct voting sessions.
“What happened today was unfortunate. ... They’re trying to impose a candidate of their choice or else no election will be held,” Geagea said after stepping out of Parliament. “Why is there a ghost candidate without a clear platform?” she asked, referring to Aoun, viewed as the March 8 coalition’s undeclared candidate for the presidency.
Before lawmakers entered the Parliament’s general assembly, Future Movement MPs launched scathing attacks against their March 8 rivals, blaming them for obstructing the democratic process to elect a president.
“A [power] vacuum will take place after May 25 ... and the government, headed by Prime Minister Tammam Salam, will assume the [powers] of the president in the coming phase,” MP Marwan Hamade said in Parliament.
Future MP and Minister of State for Administrative Development Nabil de Freij said the Hezbollah-led March 8 camp “is acting as if a president must be appointed in Lebanon.”
Before adjourning the session, Berri discussed the presidential vote in separate meetings at his office in Parliament with Salam, Jumblatt, Defense Minister Samir Moqbel, former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, former Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk.
Earlier Wednesday, Kataeb Party leader Amine Gemayel said he had agreed with Aoun to exert efforts to hold the presidential election on time. Gemayel, a former president, has also met with Geagea as part of an initiative to break the presidential deadlock.
“The meeting with Aoun was very useful and positive. We agreed to exert efforts to hold the election as soon as possible and what concerns us is for the election to preserve institutions,” Gemayel told reporters after meeting Aoun at the latter’s residence in Rabieh, north of Beirut.
“It is necessary that we elect a president within the deadline and salvage the republic, or else national institutions will be in jeopardy,” he said. “We have only 18 days ... We want a president capable of reassuring all the Lebanese, starting with the Christians,” Gemayel added.
For his part, Aoun also described the meeting as positive, saying: “Today we started a new phase of cooperating with Gemayel.”
“We insist that the election should take place on time before May 25. We hope that the election will be held before this date,” he added.
Meanwhile, France said it did not have a favorite candidate in Lebanon and called for the presidential election to be held on time.
“ France does not have any candidate. France does not interfere in the presidential election which constitutes a guarantee for the sovereignty of the Lebanese,” French Foreign Ministry spokesman Romain Nadal told reporters in Paris. “The election process has begun. It is important for the constitutional deadlines to be respected.”
He expressed France’s hope that all Lebanese lawmakers would participate in the voting “so that it would be possible to elect a candidate who can meet challenges facing Lebanon.”