BEIRUT: Lebanon is poised to slip into a presidential vacuum, as Parliament will be unable to elect a new president this week on schedule, political sources said Sunday, as the flurry of activity to break the deadlock shifted to Paris.
“For all the contacts and meetings, there has been no change. We are heading toward a [presidential] vacuum,” a senior political source told The Daily Star.
Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea agreed after their meeting in Paris Sunday on the need for the presidential election to be held on time, rejecting a vacuum in the country’s top Christian post.
They also urged lawmakers from the March 14 coalition and the Hezbollah-led March 8 alliance to attend this week’s Parliament session to elect a successor to President Michel Sleiman, whose six-year tenure expires on May 25.
Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai, meanwhile, warned that the influential Maronite Church would not accept a presidential vacuum even for a single day, repeating his call on lawmakers to elect a new president.
Geagea, the March 14-backed candidate for the presidency, met Hariri at the latter’s residence in Paris in the latest attempt to break the stalemate that threatens to cast the politically divided country into further turmoil.
The meeting, which lasted over five hours and included a working lunch, was also attended by former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, head of the parliamentary Future bloc.
The talks covered the general situation in Lebanon, “particularly the forthcoming presidential election,” a statement released by Hariri’s office said.
“Viewpoints were identical on the need to hold the presidential election at its constitutional deadline, reject a vacuum and undertake all necessary and possible efforts and contacts to prevent a vacuum,” the statement said.
It added that Hariri and Geagea also stressed the need for all lawmakers to participate in the Parliament sessions to elect a president.
Sources close to the meeting described the talks as “very successful,” saying that Hariri and Geagea had agreed on a March 14 strategy to handle the next stage with regard to the presidential polls.
“A plan was drawn up to face the next election session and another plan to confront a vacuum, if it occurs,” the sources said.
The two leaders affirmed their desire for March 14’s unity and continuity, the sources said.
Geagea is still the March 14 candidate for the presidency as long as Free Patriotic Movement leader MP Michel Aoun is the March 8 coalition’s candidate, the sources said.
Lebanese leaders scrambled to prevent the country falling into a presidential vacuum as a fresh bid by Parliament to elect a president remained undecided due to the vast rift over a compromise candidate.
Progressive Socialist Party leader MP Walid Jumblatt and Health Minister Wael Abu Faour arrived in Paris for talks with Hariri on the presidential issue, media reports said. They added that Jumblatt was set to meet with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, who is currently in Paris.Both Geagea and Siniora were reported to have discussed the presidential election in separate meetings with Prince Saud, whose country wields great influence in Lebanon and supports the Future-led March 14 coalition.
As Sleiman’s tenure draws to a close with no solution in sight to the presidential crisis, political sources said the March 14 coalition was working to break the stalemate.
In light of the impossibility of intra-Christian accord on a single candidate, various political groups have come to realize that a consensus candidate is the best way to avert a presidential vacuum, the sources said.
Speaker Nabih Berri still held out hope for a last-minute breakthrough in the president election. “The opportunity to elect a new president could be in the eleventh hour before May 25 if a consensus is reached on a candidate,” he was quoted by visitors as saying, the pan-Arab Al-Hayat daily reported.
Berri has called Parliament to meet on May 22 to vote for a president after lawmakers failed four times in less than a month to choose a successor to Sleiman.
Prime Minister Tammam Salam said in remarks published Sunday that he remained hopeful a new president would be elected on time.
“I still haven’t reached the hopelessness stage. [I still believe] that the consensus that led to the Cabinet formation will also lead to electing a new president before May 25,” Salam told Al-Hayat. “If the March 14 and the March 8 coalitions do what is necessary, there should be no problem in electing president.”
Salam is scheduled to visit Saudi Arabia Monday for talks with King Abdullah and senior Saudi officials. Media reports said Salam, who will be accompanied by a ministerial delegation, would also meet Hariri.
Hezbollah reiterated its stance that the next president should be a supporter of the resistance.
“Only someone who is keen on the resistance option and who really wants to build a state of institutions governed by law can reach the presidency seat in Lebanon,” MP Mohammad Raad, who heads Hezbollah’s bloc in Parliament, told a party ceremony in south Lebanon.
He blamed the March 14 coalition’s continued support for Geagea for the presidential deadlock. “Some insisted on naming a candidate who wants a civil war among the Lebanese people and who wants to relinquish the resistance’s achievements,” Raad said in an apparent reference to Geagea. “Such a candidate would never become president, no matter what forces support him.”
Meanwhile, political sources said that the main reason behind holding Friday’s Cabinet session at the Grand Serail rather than Baabda Palace was the dispute between Aoun and Sleiman, supported by the March 14 ministers, concerning appointment of members to the Military Council.
The Military Council controls all the financial and logistical decision-making within the Army. The council also shares its authority with the Army commander.
The sources said that Aoun sought the appointment of his son-in-law Maj. Gen. Shamel Roukoz, head of the Army’s elite unit, to the post of new Army chief.
However, other candidates for the post hold higher rankings than Roukoz, making the officer ineligible for the military’s leading post. According to the rules of the military, the Army commander cannot have a lower rank than members of the Military Council.