Saturday, December 08, 2007

Lebanese leaders put off presidential election again

Lebanese leaders put off presidential election again
Twin House sessions planned for Tuesday - one to Amend Constitution, one to fill top post

By Hani M. Bathish
Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: A parliamentary session Friday to elect Lebanon's next President has been postponed until noon Tuesday as efforts to remove several constitutional and political hurdles continue at a feverish pace. Meanwhile, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner voiced confidence Friday as he left the country that a new president would be elected by Tuesday. The postponement of the session was announced shortly after Speaker Nabih Berri met with several majority and opposition MPs in Parliament, including a one-and-a-half-hour meeting with parliamentary majority leader MP Saad Hariri. Hariri also met Saudi Ambassador Abdel-Aziz Khoja, former MP Nassib Lahoud and Public Works Minister Mohammad Safadi in Qoreitem Friday. Berri also met MP Mohammad Raad, who heads Hizbullah's Loyalty to the Resistance bloc, as well as deputies from MP Michel Aoun's Change and Reform bloc. Change and Reform MP Michel Murr, speaking to reporters after meeting with Berri in Parliament, said a proposal to present a petition to Parliament for amending the Constitution is being considered. The amendment would allow Lebanese Armed Forces commander, General Michel Suleiman, to be elected president. "Presenting a petition has been agreed on between Speaker Berri, MP Saad Hariri and the Loyalty to the Resistance bloc. It will be prepared by legal experts, among them former Justice Minister Bahij Tabbara and MP Robert Ghanem, who helped draft it," Murr said. He added that the draft would be signed by 10 MPs - five from the opposition and five from the majority. "The five opposition MPs will include MPs from Hizbullah, Amal and Aoun's bloc," Murr said, adding that this new constitutional formula would be reviewed Tuesday before the electoral session convenes.

Meanwhile, Ghanem said a petition signed by 10 MPs calling for a constitutional amendment to allow Suleiman's election to the presidency would be submitted to Parliament on Saturday. "There will be two sessions Tuesday, one to amend the Constitution and another to elect the president," he added. Speaking to reporters at Beirut's Rafik Hariri International Airport after holding three days of intensive talks with Lebanese leaders, Kouchner said there was general consensus in the country, and that rival parties must arrive at an under standing whereby a new president is elected next Tuesday. "This is what I hope and expect will happen," he added. "We struggled hard and meetings lasted for a total of four hours and it was difficult to reach agreement," he said. "The whole world looks to Lebanon today," Kouchner added, addressing he Lebanese public. "You should know a complete success could emerge on Tuesday, but it should be your success. I say this because the president elected must be your president acceptable to all sects." Kouchner said he was happy because obstacles were being dealt with one after the other and if a new president were elected Tuesday it would be a victory for Lebanon and the Lebanese. The French minister also said that a new premier must be acceptable to the new president who would appoint him. Development and Liberation Bloc MP Ali Hassan Khalil, speaking to reporters after the postponement of Friday's session, said no "final understanding" has so far been reached on an amendment to the Constitution to allow the election of Suleiman to the presidency. "We have from now until Tuesday," he said, "to try to complete consultations, which we feel is sufficient time to arrive at an understanding among the parties." "We cannot talk of specific mechanisms [for amending the Constitution]. There are ideas being put forward and circulated for discussion in a positive and serious manner, but saying we reached a final understanding on such a mechanism is not accurate," Khalil said. "General Aoun is also part of the open discussions being undertaken. His views, ideas and initiative are all being taken on board." He added that the opposition remained united in its stance. Future Movement MP Atef Majdalani told The Daily Star that the majority refuses to discuss Cabinet appointments or the premiership before the election of a new president. He said cutting the president's term short, as Aoun suggests, would be a "constitutional violation that threatens the country's unique formula and the Christian presence" which the majority will not accept. "Unfortunately we are obliged to reach an understanding with the minority. We have taken positive steps toward them [and] we hope they too take similar steps toward us," he said, adding that Lebanon cannot "take one more moment of vacuum" in the presidency.

Social Affairs Minister and March 14 MP Nayla Mouawad, speaking after the abortive session Friday, blamed Aoun for the latest delay. "I call on Aoun to stop putting up new obstacles and being a front for Syrian-Iranian ambitions in Lebanon," she told reporters. "March 14 offered a serious initiative to find a way out of this constitutional crisis and to end the vacuum in the presidency, which is nominating General Suleiman as president without any preconditions," Mouawad added. "We sacrificed our two candidates and sacrificed our fixed position against amending the Constitution ... and the March 8 forces obstruct our efforts with all their might." Majority MP Jawad Boulos told The Daily Star he had hoped popular pressure and Kouchner's visit would create a "strong dynamic" to push forward agreement, but it did not. "[The opposition] feels that a political agreement which bypasses the Constitution is the best way to go," he argued. "We disagree." Lebanese Forces boss Samir Geagea told the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation that the postponement Friday was not surprising. He said the obstacles lie with finding a constitutional mechanism to hold the presidential election. March 14 refused to enter into "bargaining" or political discussions with the opposition that could harm constitutional processes, he said.

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