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Sleiman biding his time to relaunch extension bid

  • President Michel Sleiman, right, receives Patriarch Beshara Rai in Baabda, Thursday, May 8, 2014. (The Daily Star/Dalati Nohra, HO)

If Lebanon’s two leading political blocs fail to agree on a new president, a looming vacancy in the presidency could reopen the door to extending President Michel Sleiman’s term.

The March 14 coalition has not yet announced the withdrawal of its support for Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea for president, despite comments by the LF head that he is prepared to withdraw from the race if his allies want.

Meanwhile, MP Michel Aoun and his March 8 allies have not officially announced his candidacy. Despite having his bloc’s full support, Aoun appears to be awaiting a final answer from former Prime Minister Saad Hariri as to whether he would consider backing him.

With no breakthrough in sight, this Thursday’s voting session is likely to fail like the three that preceded it.

The only other option at present, despite denials from the Maronite patriarchate and Sleiman, is the suggestion put forward by Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai to Speaker Nabih Berri before he left for Rome: amending the Constitution to allow President Michel Sleiman to remain in office until a new president can be elected.

That some corners are pushing this option is hardly a secret. Youth and Sports Minister Abdul-Muttaleb al-Hinawi has voiced open support for it and looked into the possibility together with Sleiman. He has now been tasked with selling this plan to the leading parliamentary blocs using a legal study prepared by a team within the presidential palace.

Sources at the presidential palace still hope that the threat of a vacuum in the presidency, which appears inevitable given the current conditions, would increase pressure on those regional and Western powers and present an opportunity once more to extend Sleiman’s term until a new president can be elected.

Sources in the presidential palace are also quietly supporting Rai’s efforts to sound the alarm about a presidential vacuum and the threat it would pose to Christians without taking any practical steps to bridge the division between the Christian political blocs, leaving Sleiman as the only third option. Sleiman himself in his recent speech in Jbeil said the Cabinet could not assume the powers of the presidency.

There are also a number of Christian MPs in March 14 who have come out against the government assuming the presidency’s powers and preferring Sleiman remain in his post.

However, this scenario rests on a crucial amendment to the Constitution that would require the assent of two-thirds of lawmakers, an impossibly high bar given the opposition of Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement. Moreover, Berri is under no pressure to give the patriarch an answer, as the Amal Movement has nothing to fear from a vacuum and does not share Rai’s fears.

Separately, political sources warned against the presidential election devolving into a sectarian faceoff, especially with Rai leading the charge for preventing a vacuum no matter what, knowing full well that both the obstacle and the solution are in the hands of the traditional Christian leaders.

Parliamentary sources within the March 8 coalition did not give as much weight to Maronite patriarchate’s stance, accusing it of “flip-flopping.” They said that the saga over the Orthodox election law shows that the seat of Christian power raises banners but does not commit to them.

The sources insisted it was still very possible to elect a president before the May 25 deadline but after Thursday’s session.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 14, 2014, on page 3.
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Summary

If Lebanon's two leading political blocs fail to agree on a new president, a looming vacancy in the presidency could reopen the door to extending President Michel Sleiman's term.

The only other option at present, despite denials from the Maronite patriarchate and Sleiman, is the suggestion put forward by Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai to Speaker Nabih Berri before he left for Rome: amending the Constitution to allow President Michel Sleiman to remain in office until a new president can be elected.

Sources in the presidential palace are also quietly supporting Rai's efforts to sound the alarm about a presidential vacuum and the threat it would pose to Christians without taking any practical steps to bridge the division between the Christian political blocs, leaving Sleiman as the only third option.

There are also a number of Christian MPs in March 14 who have come out against the government assuming the presidency's powers and preferring Sleiman remain in his post.


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