Thursday, September 06, 2007

Berri schedules presidential vote for September 25

Berri schedules presidential vote for September 25
Invitations sent to legislators

By Rym Ghazal
Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri officially called on Wednesday for a special session on September 25 to elect a new president in a last bid to unite rival politicians on a political decision. "The speaker had previously said that there will be a session, today he made it official and called for a general assembly at 10:30 a.m. on Tuesday, September 25, in order to elect a new president," Berri's spokesperson, Arafat Hijazi, told The Daily Star. The presidential election has exacerbated the already deep political divide between the pro-government and opposition forces, with looming fears of the emergence of two governments if the two sides don't agree before President Emile Lahoud's term expires on November 24. "Berri will hold sessions every Friday or whatever it takes to reach an agreement," he said. The session would be the first time the Parliament has met since October as Berri has refused to convene lawmakers after his opposition allies resigned from the government. "We hope that you attend the session," Berri told MPs in the official invitation published in the National News Agency. Berri is calling for a two-thirds quorum of MPs from the 128-seat Parliament to be present on September 25. "If anything less than what he expects shows up, then he will not convene the session," said the spokesperson, adding: "This could lead to disaster." Lebanon witnessed a similar scenario of two government in 1988 when Amin Gemayel, the president at that time, named then army chief General Michel Aoun to a head a military government in conflict with the existing Cabinet. Aoun was later ousted by the Syrian Army.

Last week, Berri called for a consensus candidate. The ruling majority hasn't officially responded, but according to Youth and Sports Minister Ahmad Fatfat, they are not against the idea of a consensus candidate. "There has been an overall positive reaction to Berri's initiative by the leading figures in the ruling camp," Fatfat told The Daily Star on Wednesday. "It is a positive step," he said. "This could be the step needed to open the doors for dialogue between the rical politicians." "We are willing to head to dialogue, and discuss Berri's initiative but without any preconditions," Fatfat said. "However, we do not want to give up our political right to elect the next president by a half plus one [majority]," he added. Fatfat explained that once there is agreement on a consensus president, controversy on how the election actually happens won't matter. At the same time, Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea's reaction to the initiative can be characterized as skeptical. "Why does the Berri initiative stress the two-thirds quorum for the election of the next president when it calls for a consensus president?" Geagea asked on Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. TV late Tuesday.

To garner the necessary quorum for electing a president, a compromise must be reached by the feuding parties in Lebanon, as the ruling majority of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora has just 69 MPs. The opposition has threatened to boycott the vote and deny Parliament a two-thirds quorum, thus blocking the process. In return, the majority has threatened to go ahead and choose a president from its own ranks with its majority. March 14 is expected to release an official stance on Berri's initiative by end of this week. Lahoud has said he would appoint an interim government headed by army chief General Michel Suleiman if rival Lebanese factions cannot agree on a new head of a state before the presidential term ends. Lahoud hailed Berri's call for a Parliament session to choose a new head of state, and said in a statement released by the Presidential Palace that it should be "a chance to reunite the Lebanese in order to allow the country to overcome the difficult circumstances that it is going through." The Loyalty to the Resistance Parliamentary bloc also welcomed Berri's recent initiative and is awaiting "a responsible response" to it, while maintaining that a national unity government is still the best "safety valve."

"We hope the March 14 Forces will start acting responsibly," the bloc said in a statement after a meeting Wednesday. After talks with Social Affairs Minister Nayla Mouawad, US Ambassador to Lebanon Jeffery Feltman said Wednesday that the United States will do its best to have the presidential election in Lebanon "free from foreign interference." At the same time, the personal representative of the UN secretary general in Lebanon, Geir Pedersen, welcomed Berri's initiative but said that there is a critical step that needs to be done before it works. "The resigned ministers need to return to government as their return would be a critical step toward finding a solution to the presidential issue," Pedersen said after meeting with Public Works and Transport Minister Mohammad Safadi. An-Nahar newspaper quoted sources close to the French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner as describing the Berri initiative as "necessary." As for reports of Kouchner's return to Lebanon, An-Nahar quoted him as saying "maybe." Meanwhile, Vatican City might turn into a meeting point of senior Lebanese officials as Aoun, Siniora, and parliamentary majority leader MP Saad Hariri all might be heading to the Vatican around the same time that Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Butros Sfeir will be there. Aoun is currently in Europe, where he met on Wednesday with European Parliament President Hans-Gert Pottering at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, eastern France.

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