Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Berri puts off vote on president for ninth time

Berri puts off vote on president for ninth time
Murr insists only 'minor obstacles' remain

By Hani M. Bathish
Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: Speaker Nabih Berri postponed a parliamentary session to elect a new Lebanese president for the ninth time on Monday, setting Saturday as the next chance to fill the office vacated at midnight on November 23 by Emile Lahoud. In all, 102 MPs came to Parliament Monday, many of them arriving as early as 10 a.m. for the noon session. The speaker's consultations included talks with opposition Reform and Change bloc MPs Ibrahim Kanaan, Neamatallah Abi Nasr and Shamel Mozaya. Berri then met with representatives of the ruling March 14 coalition: first Democratic Gathering leader Walid Jumblatt, then parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri. Berri also met MPs of his own Liberation and Development bloc as well as other deputies from both camps. Change and Reform MP Michel Murr said that only "minor obstacles" remain to achieving consensus, specifically agreement on the number of ministers each bloc gets in Cabinet. According to him, the majority has agreed to several points in Change and Reform leader MP Michel Aoun's initiative, while Aoun has dropped two conditions. "Berri spoke to [Aoun] who agreed to remove two conditions from his initiative; one concerns the presidency the other concerns the length of the president's term," Murr said. "There are several points in [Aoun's] initiative around which agreement has been reached, among these are the new electoral law and the Constitutional Council," Murr said. Kanaan told The Daily Star no progress has been made, adding that the majority had reneged on points already agreed on concerning the electoral law and its commitment to a national unity government. "There has been no agreement on a constitutional mechanism to amend the Constitution. In fact there were suggestions to bypass an amendment to Article 49 of the Constitution and to go ahead with a vote immediately," Kanaan said. Article 49 bars grade-one civil servants from the presidency, including General Michel Suleiman, commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces and the leading consensus candidate. "The speaker told me that he stressed to Hariri the need to negotiate with General Aoun and that no concessions can be made before they meet and talk with [Aoun]," Kanaan said, adding that politicians should not be overly optimistic in their statements. "We hope by Saturday we reach agreement and reach solutions that do not violate the Constitution," he added, stressing that for that to happen the majority has to talk with Aoun.

Lebanese Forces (LF) MP Antoine Zahra called on the Cabinet of Premier Fouad Siniora to issue a proposal for an amendment to the Constitution and present it to Parliament to vote on. "All the talk of bypassing the Constitution will not reach any result," he said. "There is one way to elect the sole candidate ... Suleiman, to the presidency, by amending the Constitution in line with constitutional norms." He added that the amendment had to have the approval of two-thirds of the Cabinet and two-thirds of Parliament. "Any other suggestion is merely to gain time and continue to hinder progress and prolong the vacuum," he argued, adding that that despite what he called March 14's "best intentions," what the opposition wants is to waste time and impose unworkable conditions. "It appears the problem is political, not procedural," he said. "Syria's decision regarding Lebanon appears to be to maintain the vacuum in the country." Zahra also warned that the his party did not want the next president to be "handcuffed" with preconditions. "The [election] is linked with a comprehensive basket of conditions," Hizbullah MP Hussein Hajj Hassan told reporters. "These conditions include amending the Constitution, defining the shape of the next government, distributing Cabinet appointments, determining how many ministers each bloc gets, as well as agreeing on the identity of next army commander." He said that without reaching a "comprehensive understanding" between rival camps the opposition will not ensure a quorum is reached in Parliament. "It all depends on [March 14] ... They ought to accept and adhere to political agreements and present us with unambiguous guarantees. If they don't we will consider they are merely maneuvering to eventually renege on agreements with us later."

After the postponement was announced, March 14 MP Jawad Boulos told reporters the majority was not convinced that the opposition has taken the fundamental decision to fill the vacancy in the presidency. "We still believe that [the opposition's] policy is aimed at avoiding the election; they do not want there to be a president in Lebanon, they do not want there to be functioning institutions in Lebanon, they do not recognize the Taif Accord," Boulos said. "We have a Constitution, we have laws, we need to implement them and if we do implement them we will find the right solutions and elect a president very soon," he added. He said the president should play an active role in designing the program which will govern the country under his administration. "The opposition wants to agree to everything prior to the election of a president and then bring in a figurehead president," Boulos said. LF boss Samir Geagea told AFP that he holds little hope of a solution being reached by the next session on Saturday unless the opposition accepts Suleiman's election unconditionally. "Rumors of an impending deal yesterday were aimed at cooling off tensions created by French and US pressure on Syria," Geagea said. The LF leader called US Undersecretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch Sunday night and discussed international efforts to resolve the crisis and elect a new president for Lebanon. March 14 MP Nayla Mouawad told reporters Monday at Parliament that the Lebanese were promised a parliamentary session Monday to elect Suleiman, but she accused the opposition of rejecting solutions because of its regional alliances. "We must elect Suleiman without any preconditions," she argued. "We call on [opposition] MPs to meet in Parliament and respect the amendment process and respect the powers of the president and not tie his hands." - With agencies

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