BEIRUT: Increasingly worried about a presidential vacuum, Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai is seeking a constitutional amendment that would keep President Michel Sleiman at Baabda Palace until a successor is elected, sources in Bkirki said Monday.
“Patriarch Rai is giving lawmakers the choice of either electing a new president on time to avoid a presidential vacuum, or amending the Constitution so that President Sleiman can stay at Baabda Palace until a new head of state is elected,” a senior source in Bkirki, the seat of the Maronite patriarchate north of Beirut, told The Daily Star.
This possibility, if approved by Parliament, would make Sleiman a caretaker president, unprecedented in Lebanon’s turbulent political history and its power-sharing formula.
While Lebanon’s Constitution allows a resigned Cabinet to serve in a caretaker capacity until a new government is formed, it makes no mention of a caretaker president.
The Bkirki source said Rai will not accept the country’s top Christian post to become vacant after Sleiman’s six-year term expires on May 25.
“Patriarch Rai will not endure a vacuum at Baabda Palace. He wants a president to be elected according to the Constitution and the lawmakers to fully shoulder their responsibilities by electing a new president on time,” the source said.
Rai sees that a constitutional amendment can prevent a vacuum in the presidency if Parliament fails to elect a president before May 25, the source added.
“If Parliament is unable to elect a president on time, Patriarch Rai supports a constitutional amendment that would allow the President [Sleiman] to stay in office and exercise his prerogatives until a new president is elected,” the source source.
In the latest flurry of activity focusing on the presidential polls, Kataeb MP Sami Gemayel met in Paris with former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, while Nader Hariri, the head of Hariri’s office, met Rai in Bkirki.
No details emerged from the Hariri-Gemayel meeting and The Daily Star’s attempts to reach the Kataeb MP were unsuccessful.
Gemayel’s father, Kataeb leader Amine Gemayel, confirmed the Paris meeting, saying that Hariri emphasized the importance of preserving state institutions and the role of Christians in these institutions.
Speaking to reporters after meeting Rai, Nader Hariri said he was assigned by the head of the Future Movement to consult with the patriarch on the presidential election.
“As a political side, we are worried about a [presidential] vacuum which we do not consider as a normal matter,” he said. “What we are concerned with is that the Christian component remains as a symbol of the country.”
A Future source denied reports that Nader Hariri had informed Rai that the Future bloc supported the extension of Sleiman’s term. Rai’s campaign for Sleiman to stay longer at Baabda Palace beyond his mandate amounts to a veiled extension of the president’s tenure, which is staunchly opposed by Speaker Nabih Berri’s bloc, Free Patriotic Movement MP Michel Aoun and the Hezbollah-led March 8 coalition.
Furthermore, any constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds majority (86) of the legislature’s 128 members, which is hard to secure given the sharp split between the March 8 and March 14 parties.
Neither side can garner a majority vote in Parliament to forge ahead with any constitutional amendment, let alone secure the required two-thirds quorum for any Parliament session.
In a bid to prevent a presidential vacuum, Sports and Youth Minister Abdul Mutaleb Hinawi also proposed that Sleiman stay in office until a new president is elected. “As there is a solution to prevent a vacancy in the presidency of the legislative and executive branches of power, a formula should be found to ensure the continuity of the current president until a new president is elected,” said Hinawi, who is loyal to Sleiman.
Rai’s planned move comes amid mounting fears that the country is increasingly inching toward a power vacuum after Parliament failed last week to meet to elect a new president for the third consecutive time for lack of a quorum.
Rai warned Sunday a vacuum would run contrary to the 1943 National Pact and eliminate Christians’ role in the country’s power-sharing system.
Parliament is scheduled to meet again in a fourth attempt in less than a month to elect a president amid growing signs that Thursday’s session is also doomed to fail in the absence of a local and regional accord on a compromise candidate acceptable to the March 8 and March 14 parties.
Lawmakers from Aoun’s parliamentary Change and Reform bloc, Hezbollah and its March 8 allies have thwarted the required two-thirds quorum by boycotting the three Parliament sessions in order to pressure their March 14 rivals to agree beforehand on a consensus candidate for the presidency.
After meeting Rai to brief him on the outcome of his talks with various political parties, Amine Gemayel again warned of dire consequences of a vacuum in the presidency after May 25. “There was full agreement in viewpoints with regard to fears of a vacuum,” Gemayel said after meeting Rai in Bkirki.
“It is very important to intensify efforts to hold the presidential election on time because a vacuum would have dangerous consequences for Lebanon’s future and its institutions,” he added.
Meanwhile, U.N. Special Coordinator for Lebanon Derek Plumbly called on Lebanese lawmakers to elect a president on time.
“The presidential election process is now entering a crucial phase, with less than two weeks remaining to 25 May. Having discussed the matter with members of the International Support Group, which includes the five permanent members of the Security Council, I would like to make two or three points on behalf of the group collectively,” he said after meeting Berri in Ain al-Tineh.
“The first is to emphasize that the process is an entirely Lebanese one, which should remain free of foreign interference,” he said. “The second is to stress nonetheless that Lebanon’s friends in the international community have a keen interest in the successful completion of the process, on time and in accordance with constitutional practice.”
Plumbly stressed that a vacancy in the presidency should be avoided. “We earnestly hope that members of Parliament will engage fully in the coming days to secure the election of a president by the date set in law.”