BEIRUT: Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea offered Thursday to quit the presidential race in favor of a new March 14 candidate, in an apparent attempt to break the political deadlock that threatens to cast Lebanon into a power vacuum.
Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai, increasingly concerned about a vacuum in the presidency, will try to bring together the four rival Maronite leaders in an attempt to agree on a single candidate, political sources said.
Rai, who had earlier Thursday met with Geagea in Bkirki, north of Beirut, later discussed the presidential election with President Michel Sleiman at Baabda Palace.
Rai briefed Sleiman on the results of his contacts with Maronite leaders aimed at finding common ground on the election of a president acceptable to all the parties, political sources said. The sources said Rai was very frustrated with attempts to thwart a quorum at Parliament sessions to elect a president.
Rai had unsuccessfully attempted to reconcile the four Maronite leaders – Geagea, MP Michel Aoun, Kataeb Party leader Amine Gemayel and Marada Movement chief Sleiman Frangieh.
Following Parliament’s three botched attempts to elect a president, Speaker Nabih Berri, asked by visitors whether a president could be elected before May 25 – when Sleiman’s six-year term ends – said: “The question that needs to be asked is why a president has not so far been elected?”
Geagea accused the Hezbollah-led March 8 coalition of obstructing the election of a president and rejected the coalition’s charges that he was “a provocative candidate.”
“I will withdraw my candidacy for the presidential election if consensus is reached on another March 14 figure,” Geagea told reporters after meeting Rai in Bkirki. “I am not a confrontational candidate.”
Geagea, the March 14-backed candidate for the presidency, had previously said he would stay in the race until the end.
The LF chief’s decision was quickly praised by a senior Kataeb official as “a step in the right direction.”
“Geagea’s move indicates a realistic and constructive approach toward the presidential election,” former Minister Salim Sayegh, a member of the Kataeb Party’s Political Bureau, told The Daily Star.
Geagea urged Rai to convince Christian lawmakers from Aoun’s parliamentary Change and Reform bloc, who along with their allies in Hezbollah and other March 8 parties have boycotted parliamentary election sessions, to attend.
Berri adjourned the third parliamentary session to election a president until May 15 Wednesday after only 73 MPs showed up, below the required two-thirds quorum of the legislature’s 128 members, raising fears of a presidential vacuum and fueling Christian fears over the power-sharing formula.
As in the two previous sessions, Wednesday’s session was boycotted by lawmakers from Aoun’s bloc, Hezbollah and its March 8 allies in a clear attempt to push their March 14 rivals to reach agreement beforehand on a consensus candidate.
Geagea voiced fears that the top Christian post would become vacant after May 25, saying: “Our fear of a vacuum is increasing. I am ready to accept any practical proposal to avert a vacuum.”
Meanwhile, Gemayel met separately with Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt and Frangieh as part of his initiative aimed at resolving the presidential crisis. Jumblatt met Gemayel at the latter’s residence in the Metn town of Bikfaya. Gemayel warned of dire consequences if a president was not elected in time.
“The failure to elect a president before May 25 would be dangerous for the country’s interest because the future would be unknown,” Gemayel told reporters after meeting Frangieh at the latter’s residence in Bnashei, north Lebanon. “We do not know where a vacuum could take the country.”
Gemayel signaled his support for a consensus president as demanded by March 8 parties. He said both the local and regional situations were difficult and unstable.
“We must elect a president capable of confronting all challenges. This can only be achieved through understanding with each other,” he said.
Gemayel said he agreed with Frangieh on the need to exert efforts to reach a consensus on the election “so that we can rescue the country.”
For his part, Frangieh said that Gemayel was “overly optimistic,” adding that it would be hard to hold the presidential election on time given the deep political divisions between the rival political alliances.
“We always say we are against a vacuum and we should work together to hold the election before May 25,” he said.
“Gemayel is overly optimistic and I am saying things as they are: Neither March 8 would elect a March 14 candidate, nor March 14 would elect a March 8 candidate,” Frangieh said.
“Amid the deep divisions, it is hard to reach agreement to hold the election within the constitutional deadline.”
Earlier, political sources told The Daily Star that Gemayel has been rallying Christian support for his presidency bid to replace Geagea as March 14’s favored candidate.
Hezbollah again implicitly rejected Geagea’s candidacy for the presidency, calling him “a provocative candidate.”
“What is obstructing the presidential election is the provocative candidate on which there is no Lebanese unanimity,” Industry Minister Hussein Hajj Hasan – also a Hezbollah MP – told reporters after meeting the Russian Ambassador to Lebanon Alexander Zasypkin.
Referring to Geagea’s “negative position” on the resistance, he said: “Among the priorities of any presidential candidate is to adopt the deep-rooted golden equation of ‘the people, the Army and the resistance.’”
Separately, the Saudi Ambassador to Lebanon Ali Awad Assiri met Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil. Assiri did not make any statement after the meeting, however.
Meanwhile, the Cabinet will meet at Baabda Palace Friday to approve key appointments to many vacant posts in the public administration, political sources said.