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Lebanon in race against time to avert vacuum

President Michel Sleiman, left, receives former President Amine Gemayel in Baabda, Tuesday, May 13, 2014. (The Daily Star/Dalati Nohra, HO)

BEIRUT: March 8 politicians reacted with dismay Tuesday to attempts to have President Michel Sleiman’s mandate extended beyond May 25 as Lebanon found itself in a race against time to avoid a much-feared power vacuum given Parliament’s failure to elect a new president.

Prime Minister Tammam Salam meanwhile warned that a presidential vacuum could plunge the country into further political and security turmoil and even spark a power struggle within the Christian community over the presidency.

For his part, Speaker Nabih Berri ruled out securing the required two-thirds quorum for this week’s Parliament session to elect a president and accused unnamed parties of seeking to encourage foreign meddling in the presidential vote.

“There are some who are trying to kill time by reaching [a presidential] vacuum with the aim of inviting foreign interference,” Berri was quoted by visitors as saying. “So far, all states support holding the presidential election on time.”

Berri voiced fears of foreign interference in the presidential polls once the country had fallen into a presidential vacuum. He welcomed signs of a possible rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which back opposing sides in Lebanon and Syria.

The specter of a presidential vacuum hangs over Lebanon after Parliament has so far failed three times for lack of a quorum to elect a successor to Sleiman, whose six-year term in office expires on May 25.

Sleiman joined March 8 politicians in rejecting attempts to extend his mandate until a new president is elected. He said he was happily waiting for his term to end.

“For me, May 25 is a different day, one I haven’t seen for 47 years. I am waiting for this day to come with joy,” Sleiman posted on his Twitter account. “I have nothing to do with plans to extend my term.”

His comment came a day after Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai was reported to be seeking a constitutional amendment that would keep Sleiman at Baabda Palace until a successor is elected.

Parliament is scheduled to meet again Thursday in a fourth attempt in less than a month to elect a president amid clear indications that the session is also destined to fail in the absence of a local and regional accord on a compromise candidate acceptable to the March 8 and March 14 parties.

As in the previous three sessions, lawmakers from MP Michel Aoun’s parliamentary Change and Reform bloc, Hezbollah and its March 8 allies will foil the required two-thirds quorum by boycotting Thursday’s session to pressure their March 14 rivals to agree beforehand on a consensus candidate for the presidency.

Salam warned of grave consequences for stability and security if Parliament failed to elect a successor to Sleiman on time.

“If we reach a vacancy in the presidency seat, we will enter a precarious stage with its political ramifications that might subsequently reflect negatively on many matters, including the security situation,” Salam said in an interview with the Progressive Socialist Party’s weekly Al-Anbaa online newspaper.

“A flaw in the presidency could be a gateway to other flaws that might trigger a political struggle among various political parties, especially the Christian parties, over the presidency post,” he said.

In another statement, Salam said his government was ready to fill the presidential void if Parliament failed to elect a president before May 25.

“There is no such thing as a power vacuum. There is a vacancy in a specific post and not a vacuum,” Salam said in remarks published by As-Safir daily. “A government that includes almost all political forces can fill the vacuum in administrative positions through consensus.”

The parliamentary Future bloc also warned of the consequences of a power vacuum and called on the March 8 parties to name their candidate for the country’s top Christian post to stand against the March 14-backed candidate, Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea.

“The election of a new president is at the top of national and constitutional priorities that should be implemented during the next Parliament session before the expiry of President Michel Sleiman’s term,” the bloc said in a statement after its weekly meeting chaired by former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. “The country needs a new president as head of the state in implementation of the Constitution and to safeguard the National Pact [on power sharing],” it said.“The bloc sees that a vacancy in the presidency position is generally rejected, especially in these sensitive circumstances through which the country and the region are passing,” the statement said.

Reiterating its support for Geagea’s candidacy, the bloc urged the March 8 parties to announce their candidate and attend the election sessions “so as to avoid falling into a [presidential] vacancy.”

Meanwhile, Aoun’s bloc and Hezbollah reiterated their opposition to extension of Sleiman’s term.

“Extension [of one’s term] kills democracy. This is our principled position, despite the knowledge that the president has rejected extension [of his term],” MP Ibrahim Kanaan told reporters after the Change and Reform bloc’s weekly meeting chaired by Aoun in Rabieh.

He called for the presidential polls to be held within the constitutional deadline, saying that there are “choices” on the next president that should be decided before May 25.

Hezbollah dismissed attempts to extend Sleiman’s mandate. “Proposals to extend President Michel Sleiman’s term are behind us,” Hezbollah deputy leader Sheikh Naim Qassem said in remarks published in Al-Akhbar newspaper. “Renewed talk about [Sleiman’s] extension is nothing more than inapplicable hopes.”

Kataeb Party leader Amine Gemayel met Sleiman as part of his consultations with various political leaders to find a solution to the presidential crisis.

Gemayel did not speak to reporters after the meeting at Baabda Palace. But speaking to the Voice of Lebanon radio station afterward, he said Lebanon had no choice but to elect a president to avoid a presidential vacuum.

“There are fears that a vacuum would reflect negatively on regular democratic life and expose Lebanon to political, economic and social setbacks and threaten security,” Gemayel said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 14, 2014, on page 1.

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Summary

March 8 politicians reacted with dismay Tuesday to attempts to have President Michel Sleiman's mandate extended beyond May 25 as Lebanon found itself in a race against time to avoid a much-feared power vacuum given Parliament's failure to elect a new president.

Berri voiced fears of foreign interference in the presidential polls once the country had fallen into a presidential vacuum.

The specter of a presidential vacuum hangs over Lebanon after Parliament has so far failed three times for lack of a quorum to elect a successor to Sleiman, whose six-year term in office expires on May 25 .

Sleiman joined March 8 politicians in rejecting attempts to extend his mandate until a new president is elected.

In another statement, Salam said his government was ready to fill the presidential void if Parliament failed to elect a president before May 25 .

Speaking to the Voice of Lebanon radio station afterward, he said Lebanon had no choice but to elect a president to avoid a presidential vacuum.


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