BEIRUT: Speaker Nabih Berri and head of the Democratic Gathering MP Walid Jumblatt traded accusations and ruthless criticism on Thursday amid growing tensions on the Lebanese political scene concerning the looming presidential poll and the much-debated quorum to elect the next president.
Berri's press office said Jumblatt was doing his best to jeopardize all initiatives to solve the nine-month-old political standoff in Lebanon, adding that Jumblatt has "always opposed national unity that Speaker Berri has long worked to establish."
The press office's comments came as a response to comments made by the Druze leader in an interview with An-Nahar Youth published Thursday.
Jumblatt said that the speaker had turned into a simple mediator since he solicited Hizbullah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah "to watch over his [Berri's] safety."
"He has turned into a mere mailbox; sadly enough, he has put an end to his own role," Jumblatt said.
In turn, Berri's office said Jumblatt's comments "were so flawed they are not worth a response, especially since it was Jumblatt who once asked for Sayyed Nasrallah's protection."
The office also dismissed information reported by As-Safir newspaper about a meeting between Berri and Nasrallah recently. Berri also dismissed news reported in the same As-Safir article that the speaker had suggested that Lebanese Army Commander General Michel Suleiman head a two-year caretaker government.
In his interview with the An-Nahar weekly youth supplement, Jumblatt stressed the importance of having the presidential election take place within constitutional deadlines.
"We will elect a president from among March 14 forces by absolute majority anywhere outside the Parliament as the Constitution gives us the right to do so after set deadlines expire," he said.
Jumblatt also rejected the possibility of electing a consensus president, "because this goes against all the democratic principles we have long fought for."
Telecommunications Minister Marwan Hamadeh told Voice of Lebanon radio the debate over whether a quorum is needed to elect the next president "will become nonsensical if parties are able to reach a consensus about the identity of the president."
Echoing Jumblatt's stands, Hamadeh said the ruling coalition will elect a president by absolute majority if constitutional deadlines are not met, "so as to avoid any power vacuum."
Three Maronite figures from the March 14 Forces, MPs Butros Harb and Robert Ghanem and former MP Nassib Lahoud have already announced their candidacy for the presidency.
Following a meeting with Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Butros Sfeir on Thursday, Lahoud said he will announce his "official candidacy along with my platform next week."
The opposition, which has been calling for a consensus concerning president, appeared to lose hope on Thursday, with Hizbullah MP Hussein Hajj Hassan saying that there was "very little time left for any consensus to be reached.
"Electing a president by absolute majority is a reckless step that is likely to increase divisions," he said.
President Emile Lahoud expressed his "strict" opposition to having the president elected by absolute majority.
However, former President Amine Gemayel said during a political rally that consensus was likely "to strip Christians their rights even more."
"We are determined to elect a new president for Lebanon so as to avoid further chaos on the Lebanese political scene, and to preserve the rights of Christians," Gemayel said.
Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun also tackled on Thursday the issue of Christian rights in Lebanon saying "a large portion of Christians are currently being alienated and we are being fought on all levels."
Speaking to his supporters in Kesrouan, Aoun said that religious figures, including Sfeir and Grand Mufti Mohammad Rashid Qabbani, "have failed to put an end to numerous attempts to raise sectarian tensions in Lebanon."