BEIRUT: U.S. Ambassador David Hale urged rival Lebanese leaders Monday to elect a new president on schedule, while warning of the consequences of a vacuum in the country’s top Christian post.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Tammam Salam, who began an official visit to Saudi Arabia Monday, met with former Prime Minister Saad Hariri at the latter’s residence in the port city of Jeddah.
The talks, attended by a ministerial delegation accompanying Salam, were believed to have touched on the presidential election. Hariri hosted a dinner for Salam and the ministers accompanying him on his first visit to Saudi Arabia since he formed his Cabinet on Feb. 15.
Salam is scheduled to meet Saudi Crown Prince Salman and other senior officials Tuesday.
Hale discussed the presidential election crisis in separate meetings with President Michel Sleiman and Speaker Nabih Berri. He had visited Saudi Arabia recently for talks with Saudi officials on the presidential vote before Sleiman’s six-year term expires on May 25.
“I took this occasion to repeat what has been a consistent position of the United States. We urge Lebanon’s leaders to conduct the presidential election on time and in accordance with the Constitution,” Hale told reporters after talks with Berri at the latter’s residence in Ain al-Tineh.
“Our aim is to help the Lebanese protect the electoral process, not to pre-determine the outcome,” he added. “I believe that the vast majority of the Lebanese people want their country to be peaceful and stable, and meeting its international obligations. The international community wants to help in that regard, and with the many challenges that the Lebanese face.”
Hale’s remarks come as the specter of a presidential vacuum looms large over Lebanon with Parliament being unable to elect a successor to Sleiman this week, given the split between the March 14 coalition and the Hezbollah-led March 8 alliance over a compromise candidate.
Berri has called Parliament to meet Thursday to vote for a president after lawmakers failed four times in less than a month for lack of quorum to choose a successor to Sleiman.
The speaker has also called Parliament to meet Wednesday to discuss Sleiman’s appeal to the legislature to elect a new president. Sleiman Friday called on Parliament to elect a new president to avoid the risks that would incur if a successor is not elected before May 25.
Hale stressed that success in meeting challenges, including averting the price of a presidential vacuum, would not be possible without cooperation among rival Lebanese leaders.
“Success will not be possible without Lebanese leaders who are committed to those goals and who are partners in that effort,” the U.S. envoy said. “It will take a functioning presidency, parliament and cabinet to tackle these and other challenges, and to avoid the price of gaps and paralysis.”
“And we believe it is still within the capacity of Lebanon’s leaders to achieve these goals, including the timely election of a president.”
Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, meanwhile, denied media reports that quoted him as saying that Hariri supported Free Patriotic Movement leader MP Michel Aoun as “a consensus candidate” for the presidency, saying the statement was taken out of context.
Geagea said Aoun could not be viewed as a consensus candidate for the presidency in light of his political stances and alliances in recent years.
“[Former] Prime Minister Saad Hariri and I discussed all the options available to break the impasse over the presidency,” Geagea told reporters at a news conference in Paris. “Hariri then pointed to Aoun’s attempts to present himself as a consensus candidate and I suggested we stop and see to what extent is Aoun really consensual.”
Geagea said he explained to Hariri “very objectively” that Aoun was not behaving as a consensus candidate. He added that Aoun’s deeds, especially when his Change and Reform bloc along with March 8 factions cast blank ballots during the April 23 round of voting denoted that the FPM leader was far from being consensual.
“How did Aoun suddenly become a consensus candidate?” the LF leader asked.
Earlier, the LF office also refuted the reports that quoted Geagea as saying that Hariri backed Aoun as “a consensus candidate.” “What some media outlets reported that Geagea quoted former Prime Minister Saad Hariri as backing Free Patriotic Movement head MP Michel Aoun’s candidacy for the presidency is erroneous, incomplete and inaccurate,” the LF office said in a statement.
Geagea reportedly made his remarks at a news conference in Paris where he held talks with Hariri and Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal a day earlier.
Salam urged Lebanese expatriates and Gulf citizens, especially Saudis, to spend the summer and invest in Lebanon. Addressing a crowd of the Lebanese community at the Lebanese consulate in Jeddah, he said efforts would be intensified to elect a new president.
Salam denied that foreign powers were meddling in the presidential polls. “We know that political forces have their ties with foreign [countries] but we have not seen any foreign meddling in the presidential election,” he said, speaking to reporters aboard the plane that flew him to Jeddah. The prime minister denied that his visit was intended to discuss the presidential election.
He also dismissed as “baseless” reports that Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai had proposed extending Sleiman’s term to avoid a vacuum in the presidency.
Rai held talks with Salam at the Grand Serail earlier in the day before the prime minister left for Saudi Arabia.
Salam warned that a presidential vacuum would not be in favor of the Maronites or other sects. “We hope we will not reach a vacuum, which would not be reassuring for the Maronite sect, nor for all Lebanese sects and Lebanon,” he told reporters after meeting Rai.
Hezbollah called for a presidential candidate who would safeguard Lebanon’s sovereignty and protect the resistance.
“We want the presidential election to be held on time. We do not want a vacancy or a vacuum [in the presidency],” MP Mohammad Raad, head of Hezbollah’s bloc in Parliament, told a memorial ceremony in the eastern city of Baalbek.“So far, it has not been insinuating to us a candidate to this position [presidency] who is concerned about sovereignty.”