Monday, May 14, 2007

Lebanese politicians trade warnings over presidency

Lebanese politicians trade warnings over presidency
By Hani M. Bathish
Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: Amid veiled threats of the establishment of a parallel government emanating from Baabda, and warnings from Ain al-Tineh on Sunday of dire consequences should that happen, hopes dimmed that a consensus on the issue of the presidency would be reached any time soon. Vatican officials, including Pope Benedict XVI, have stressed the need to avoid leaving the presidential post vacant, urging the Lebanese to prevent the creation of two competing governments. Quoting informed sources, local An-Nahar daily said on Saturday that a papal envoy would visit Lebanon to head off a possible crisis over the next presidential election.
President Emile Lahoud warned on Sunday that if the time for the presidential election in Parliament, which is scheduled for September 25, arrives and "they fail to elect a new president, I will be forced to take a decision, that is the lesser of two evils, rather than allow an unconstitutional government to assume the role of the president." Lahoud made his comments during an interview with France 24 television. He said that he fears what may befall the Lebanese in the event of a failure to elect a new president. Lahoud also rejected resorting to Chapter 7 of the UN Charter to establish a tribunal of to try suspects in the slaying of former Premier Rafik Hariri. Chapter 7 status would allow the court to begin work without parliamentary approval. Lahoud said Chapter 7 may only be invoked in the absence of the Lebanese judiciary and to prosecute mass murderers, as was the case in the former Yugoslavia.

Hizbullah MP Hussein al-Hajj Hassan, speaking to reporters Sunday, said that Lahoud would not surrender power to an unconstitutional government and warned of an impending constitutional crisis if the ruling majority elects a new president with only a simple majority in Parliament. Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri vowed last week to convene the legislature to elect a new president, provided that a two-thirds majority of members attend the session. Berri, in an interview with Kuwait's Al-Anbaa newspaper on Sunday, expressed fears that Lahoud would set up an interim government if the parliamentary majority attempts to elect a president with a simple majority of MPs. "In the event the majority violates the Constitution and elects a president with a half-plus-one majority, I fear President Lahoud will set up another government justifying his actions as protecting the Constitution; this is my real worry," Berri said. Asked if it would be possible to elect a new president if a quorum of two-thirds is not achieved on September 25, Berri said: "It would be very difficult if not impossible to do so, as in the first electoral session we need two-thirds of members of Parliament present, neither the opposition nor the majority possesses two-thirds of parliamentary seats." The speaker said that there was currently a new Saudi-Iranian initiative aimed at solving the political deadlock in Lebanon, but that the Arab League was absent from this effort.

In response to perceived opposition pressure against holding a presidential election, the Maronite Church announced a series of steps to guard against attempts to block the presidential election and the creation of the international tribunal. Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir has said that both the Maronite Church and the Vatican support an election without foreign interference. During a surprise visit to Baabda Friday, Sfeir reportedly impressed on the president the importance of "facilitating the election of his successor" and that the church rejected all attempts leading to establishing two governments in Lebanon.

Lebanese Forces (LF) leader Samir Geagea, speaking to a student delegation from the Beirut Arab University on Sunday, stressed the importance of holding a presidential election to avoid disastrous consequences. Geagea said the only alternative to holding an election was for the Cabinet to assume the responsibilities of the president. He rejected this option, calling on MPs to attend the electoral session on September 25 as called for by the speaker. He also voiced objection to proposals for a so-called "compromise candidate." "Our candidate will be from March 14 or from among those who support its political agenda," he said, adding that the candidate would be announced at a later date. The LF leader said that Sfeir's visit to Lahoud was an attempt by the patriarch to guarantee a suitable environment for a normal election. "There are those trying to use president Lahoud and push him in a different direction such as setting up an interim government," Geagea said.

Meanwhile, Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) leader MP Michel Aoun, speaking Friday at the annual dinner for physicians affiliated with the FPM, reiterated his view that the current Parliament is "unconstitutional and is incapable of electing a new president."

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