BEIRUT: Parliament Thursday failed in its fourth attempt in less than a month to elect a new president, raising fears of a presidential vacuum and underlining the lawmakers’ inability to break the deadlock that threatens to throw the politically divided country into further turmoil.
Parliament’s repeated failure to elect a successor to President Michel Sleiman, whose six-year tenure ends on May 25, has also increased Christian concerns over the country’s delicate power-sharing formula.
Speaker Nabih Berri adjourned Thursday’s session until May 22, three days before Sleiman is scheduled to leave office, after only 73 lawmakers showed up, well below the two-thirds quorum (86) of the legislature’s 128 members required to begin the session.
As in the three previous sessions, lawmakers from MP Michel Aoun’s parliamentary Change and Reform bloc, Hezbollah and its March 8 allies boycotted Thursday’s meeting apparently to pressure their March 14 rivals to reach agreement beforehand on a consensus candidate for the presidency.
Attending lawmakers were mostly from the March 14 coalition, Berri’s bloc and MP Walid Jumblatt’s bloc.
Political sources predicted that next week’s parliamentary session was also destined to fail to elect a president in the absence of a local and regional accord over a compromise president.
The sources told The Daily Star that they did not expect any breakthrough in the presidential stalemate, pending the outcome of upcoming Iranian-Saudi talks.
Saudi Arabia has recently extended an invitation to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to visit the kingdom for talks on contentious issues in the region. Resuming contacts between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which wield great influence in Lebanon, could have a positive effect on defusing tensions in the region, including the Lebanese presidential deadlock.
Kataeb MP Sami Gemayel lashed out at the boycotting lawmakers, blaming them for the failure to elect a president.
He also blamed Berri for the delays, saying the speaker should have called for daily sessions until Parliament elected a new president. “Speaker Berri should have announced a ‘state of emergency’ in Parliament until a new president is elected, including calling for election sessions on Saturdays and Sundays,” Gemayel said after the speaker adjourned the meeting. “One week is just too long for us.”
“There is a number of lawmakers who are deliberately obstructing the election of the Lebanese president. Those lawmakers are responsible for this vacuum and the failure to elect a president,” he added.
Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, the March 14-backed candidate for the presidency, called for a constitutional amendment to avert a possible vacuum in the future. He accused the March 8 coalition of deliberately scuttling the presidential poll.
“We should work on amending the Constitution to elect a new president because it is no longer acceptable for such obstructions to continue,” Geagea told a news conference at his residence in Maarab, north of Beirut, after Parliament failed to elect a president.
“The amendments should adjust the following: the first round of voting requiring a two-thirds quorum, the second would require a majority plus one and the third session would be convened for MPs who decided to attend,” he said. He added that such changes should be discussed after the May 25 deadline.
Geagea said it was impossible to agree on a president in light of the conditions set by the March 8 coalition.
“The March 8 [coalition] is responsible for derailing the presidential election. Christians in this coalition bear the biggest responsibility,” he added, referring to lawmakers from Aoun’s bloc.
The scene outside Parliament’s building in Nijmeh Square was a repeat of those previous during sessions, but lacked the barbed wires usually set up when civil servants protest in parallel to parliamentary sessions.
After this session, it is not necessary for Berri to call on lawmakers to convene for the election of a new head of state because the Constitution requires Parliament to enter an electoral session 10 days before the expiration of the current president’s term.
Prior to the session, Berri held separate meetings with Prime Minister Tammam Salam, Jumblatt and MP Ibrahim Kanaan from Aoun’s bloc. He also held talks with Salam and former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora after the session.
Kanaan said he reiterated the bloc’s position on boycotting the presidential vote until an agreement is reached on a consensus candidate.
MP Ahmad Fatfat said that his Future bloc “will coordinate with March 14 allies on whether to attend legislative sessions after May 25.” He said he believed March 14 lawmakers would only attend sessions to pass urgent draft laws.
Christian lawmakers from the March 14 coalition said Tuesday that they were mulling a boycott of Parliament in response to a presidential vacuum in the presidency.
Hezbollah’s deputy leader Sheikh Naim Qassem renewed the party’s call for reaching a consensus on Sleiman’s successor.
“Let us be clear and honest, consensus is the shortest way to elect a president,” Qassem said during a ceremony in Hadath, south of Beirut.
“Challenge has obstructed, and continues to obstruct, the election of a new president; let us benefit from the positive circumstances that helped achieve a national unity government.”
Meanwhile, Salam is scheduled to pay an official visit to Saudi Arabia early next week, a source close to the premier said. During his visit, Salam will hold talks with Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz and senior Saudi officials, the source said.
Salam will be accompanied by a ministerial delegation. It will be Salam’s first visit official to Saudi Arabia since he formed his Cabinet on Feb. 15.
Separately, Jumblatt, a longtime politician and former warlord, said in remarks published Thursday that he would not run in the parliamentary elections, making way for his son, Taymour.
“My conscience is clear, and I will turn my political page because the [presidential poll] might be the last I will vote in,” the Progressive Socialist Party leader said in an interview with the Saudi Asharq al-Awsat daily.
Jumblatt said he was “seriously thinking” about refraining from running in the upcoming parliamentary polls. “I will not run in the parliamentary elections. But I will continue my political life as an observer ... observing events of the world and traveling,” he said.