Friday, November 30, 2007

Berri delays election again as all sides rally behind Suleiman

Berri delays election again as all sides rally behind Suleiman
Jumblatt: 'stability and prosperity loom on the horizon'

By Mirella Hodeib
Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: Speaker Nabih Berri postponed a session to elect Lebanon's next president for the sixth time in a row on Thursday, announcing that Friday's scheduled vote would be delayed until December 7. At the same time, politicians from various groups expressed their willingness to elect the commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces, General Michel Suleiman. "In order to permit further consultations toward reaching a consensus on the election of a new president, the speaker decided to postpone the session scheduled for tomorrow until Friday December 7 at 1:00 p.m.," said a statement issued by Berri's office late Thursday. Observers said that the sixth postponement was different from the previous ones, since the identity of the next president is apparently no longer subject to debate, with the focus now shifting to finding the most suitable constitutional scenario for having Suleiman elected. For Suleiman to be elected, the Parliament will have to amend the Constitution as it prevents senior state employees, including army commanders, from running for the post while in office. Berri had told As-Safir newspaper in remarks published Thursday that he has informed politicians that he was ready to find "technical ways" to amend the Constitution. "There are four ways to do that but the basis should be a political agreement between concerned groups," he added, without elaborating. Suleiman is seen as a neutral figure in a country where political divisions are often obvious. The presidency has been vacant since midnight last Friday, when incumbent Emile Lahoud's term expired.

On Thursday, leaders from across Lebanon's political spectrum said they endorsed the Suleiman option. MP Michel Aoun, head of the Free Patriotic Movement said he backed Suleiman to become Lebanon's new president, a move that could help to fill a week-long political vacuum. "Yes of course, I back him and I am very happy," Aoun said after the weekly meeting of the Reform and Change parliamentary bloc he heads. "If the majority wants, and other parties in the opposition want, then it is okay." Asked if he will support any constitutional amendments to open the way for Suleiman, Aoun replied in English: "I will not oppose. ... Right now, I will accept the compromise." Aoun, like Suleiman a Maronite as all presidents should be under Lebanon's confessional system, put himself forward previously as a candidate, but the parliamentary majority refused to back him. "However," he said, "there are constitutional obstacles that should be removed because the government is illegitimate." Any constitutional amendments would have to be drafted by the government and then presented to Parliament for ratification. Aoun and the opposition consider the government headed by Premier Fouad Siniora as illegitimate since six ministers, including all five Shiites, resigned from their posts in November last year. Once a harsh opponent of having military figures accede to power, the head of the Democratic Gathering, MP Walid Jumblatt, said "flexibility should be shown concerning a constitutional amendment so as to find a solution to the current impasse." "Having the Constitution amended should not be that complicated for stability and prosperity loom on the horizon," he said after a meeting with ex-MP Tammam Salam. Echoing Jumblatt's stance, Siniora said that discussions were "under way to decide on the possibility of having the Constitution amended."

Siniora also met on Thursday with US Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman. Feltman called for holding the presidential election "as soon as possible." "We hope the presidential vacuum will be filled very soon," Feltman said following a meeting with a delegation from the Maronite League headed by Joseph Torbay. "Washington supports any president elected by the Parliament according to the Constitution," he added. Feltman said the US financial, political and social commitments to Lebanon remain intact, adding that his country was "looking forward to cooperating with the new president." Feltman held talks on Thursday with several political and religious figures, including Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Butros Sfeir, Lebanese Forces boss Samir Geagea and former interim Premier Najib Mikati. Various media reports speculated that Mikati, also considered a consensus figure, would head Lebanon's next Cabinet if a president is elected. Also endorsing Suleiman for president, Saudi Ambassador Abdel-Aziz Khoja said on Thursday his county would support the nomination of the commander of the army if it was backed by consensus. For his part, Geagea told reporters on Thursday that "a constitutional amendment is a possible scenario, [but] only if it were amended for Suleiman." - With agencies, additional reporting by Nafez Qawas

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