BEIRUT: Christian parties plan to boycott Parliament sessions in response to a looming presidential vacuum as lawmakers failed Thursday for the fifth time in a row to pick a successor to President Michel Sleiman, three days before his six-year term expires.
Parliament’s repeated failure to elect a new president has underscored the lawmakers’ inability to break the stalemate, and subsequently shifted attention to regional and international powers to help in filling the presidential void.
Political sources said they expected the presidential vacuum to last a few months with any hope of a breakthrough hinging on regional and international intervention.
After Thursday’s session failed to elect a president over lack of quorum, Speaker Nabih Berri said that he would call Parliament into session at any time that a consensus candidate was agreed upon or a quorum of MPs was reached.
“If any positive developments emerged, I will immediately call for an election session,” Berri told The Daily Star.
He said if new president was not elected a few days after the presidential vacuum, he would call for a regular Parliament session every 15 days.
“The problem is not with Parliament, but with politicians who have failed to agree on a [presidential] candidate,” Berri said.
He added that he was adamant on Parliament’s legislative role, including a May 27 session to discuss and approve the salary scale bill for civil servants and public teachers.
Apparently responding to Christian lawmakers who have threatened to boycott Parliament sessions in protest at a presidential vacuum, Berri said he rejected using the power vacuum as a pretext to disrupt Parliament’s legislative role.
“I don’t want to set precedents to obstruct Parliament’s role on the pretext of a presidential vacuum,” Berri said, adding: “Anyone who wants to boycott [Parliament] is free to do so. But a boycott will be contrary to democracy.”
Parliament’s failure to elect a successor to Sleiman has pushed Lebanon closer to a presidential vacuum, increasing Christian concerns over the country’s delicate power-sharing formula.
Addressing a Cabinet session he chaired at the Grand Serail, Prime Minister Tammam Salam said until a president is elected, the government would assume full executive powers and care for the people’s affairs. He called for combined efforts by all political parties to elect a new president so that the period of a presidential vacuum would not be long.
Interior Minister Nuhad Machnouk ruled out the resignation of Christian ministers over the presidential vacuum. “Christian leaders would not threaten political stability,” he said before entering the Cabinet meeting.
Machnouk added that Christian leaders are “too wise to stall the Cabinet’s work.”
Lebanese Forces MP Antoine Zahra said his party was coordinating with other allied March 14 Christian groups to boycott Parliament sessions in response to a vacuum in the country’s top Christian post.
“We will only attend sessions to elect a new president or sessions to discuss extraordinary issues,” Zahra told The Daily Star.
“We will boycott ordinary Parliament sessions, including the [May 27] session to discuss the salary scale draft law,” he said. “Our position is intended to push the lawmakers into electing a new president.”
Zahra said the Kataeb Party tended to take a similar position on boycotting Parliament sessions.
LF MP George Adwan said Parliament should not be allowed to legislate while the presidency seat is vacant.
“It is true that the government combined can replace the president according to the Constitution ... But we cannot behave as if nothing has happened. We should not be called to attend sessions and legislate as if there is a president in office,” Adwan told reporters in Parliament after Thursday’s session.
“The lack of quorum would lead to a vacuum in the presidential post and ultimately a vacuum in the Christian component in the country, and this would cause Parliament to lose the authority to legislate,” he said.
“Legislation in the case of a void in the president’s seat is allowed only if institutions’ paths are at risk,” Adwan added.
The Daily Star’s attempts to reach Kataeb Party MP Sami Gemayel for comment on the impact of the presidential void on the Cabinet and Parliament meetings were not successful. But Gemayel said last week his party would not attend Parliament sessions in the event of a presidential vacuum.
Two Kataeb MPs said a final decision on whether to boycott Parliament and Cabinet sessions would be taken during a meeting Friday to be chaired by party head Amine Gemayel.
“A meeting of the Kataeb Party’s mini-political bureau will decide on whether to attend Parliament and Cabinet sessions amid the presidential vacuum,” Kataeb MP Fadi Haber told The Daily Star.
Kataeb MP Samer Saadeh said the party has still three days before Sleiman’s mandate expires to decide on whether to attend Parliament session if a new president was not elected.
MP Ibrahim Kanaan from MP Michel Aoun’s parliamentary Change and Reform bloc said the bloc would meet Monday to decide on Parliament and Cabinet meetings in the event of a presidential vacuum.
As in last week’s session, only 73 lawmakers showed up Thursday, well below the two-thirds quorum (86) of the legislature’s 128 members required to begin the session.
As they did in previous sessions, lawmakers from Aoun’s bloc, Hezbollah and its March 8 allies thwarted a quorum by boycotting Thursday’s meeting apparently to pressure their March 14 rivals to reach agreement beforehand on a consensus candidate for the presidency.
Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, the March 14-backed candidate for the presidency, called Thursday “a sad day” and accused the March 8 coalition of obstructing the Parliament sessions because it was not confident of winning.
“The state now is crippled and it becomes a caretaker one,” said Geagea, who followed the Parliament session from his Maarab residence, north of Beirut. “The state gets crippled when the presidential post is vacant, and this is what we are facing at this stage.”
“The March 8 side did not attend the sessions because it was not sure of the victory of its candidate, thus plunging the country into a vacuum,” he said.