Lebanese Parliament Fails to Elect President

Lebanese youths release pigeons during a parade to mark the country's independence.

Lebanese youths release pigeons during a parade to mark the country's independence in Beirut on Thursday. Foreign envoys and Lebanese leaders were engaged in make-or-break talks on selecting a new president hours before the term of President Emile Lahoud expires. Joseph Barrak/AFP/Getty hide caption

itoggle caption Joseph Barrak/AFP/Getty

Lebanon's parliament failed Friday to elect a successor to pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud hours before he is set to leave office.

Speaker Nabih Berri postponed the session until Nov. 30 after the legislature failed to get the necessary two-thirds quorum to take a vote. Berri said in a statement that the postponement would give factions more time to reach a consensus.

The failure to elect a new president could throw the country deeper into political chaos and violence. While both sides said efforts are under way to prevent further deterioration, each camp was waiting Friday for the other to make the first move.

Constitutional Provision

In the absence of a president, the anti-Syrian government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora would take executive power under the constitution. But the pro-Syrian Lahoud has vowed not to hand his authorities over to Saniora's administration, considering it unconstitutional after all five ministers of the Shiite Muslim community quit a year ago.

"Any step taken by Fuad Saniora to take over the presidency's duties ... within hours the opposition will be on the streets to bring him down by force," warned opposition politician Wiam Wahhab on Hezbollah's al-Manar TV late Thursday.

The most dangerous scenario is that Lahoud could create an alternative government and transfer his power to it. Saniora's Western-backed government would likely refuse to step aside, leaving Lebanon with two rival governments, much like during the last two years of the 1975-90 civil war.

A compromise possibility is that Lahoud will entrust his security powers to the heads of the military, a move that the government would likely not oppose - effectively putting the situation on hold to allow further talks on a candidate.

"We are giving wide space to the continuation of dialogue and consultations," said Akram Chehayeb of a hard-line parliament faction backing Saniora. "We want to preserve civil peace."

The opposition-aligned Berri postponed the session 30 minutes after the legislature failed to muster the necessary two-thirds quorum to begin voting. It followed talks with leaders of the parliamentary majority.

Scheduling another session in a week as talks between the two sides continue could defuse for now any potential street confrontations.

Negotiations Continue

Lawmakers in the majority, anti-Syrian faction said they would not take any drastic measures such as electing one of their own in a simple majority ignoring the opposition boycott.

Walid Jumblatt, a prominent leader in the majority, said afterwards that he continues to hold out for consensus on a candidate, stressing that the priority was to prevent the political tensions from turning into violence.

"We will continue to work for consensus and national peace," he told reporters.

Ahead of Friday's events, army commander Gen. Michel Suleiman has ordered soldiers "not to be lenient or inactive" in confronting possible troublemakers, calling on his troops to ignore the politics and "listen to the call of duty."

The military has been on alert for several days. On Friday morning, hundreds of troops in tanks, armored carriers and jeeps deployed along intersections leading to the Lebanese capital and around the downtown area where the parliament building is located.

Lawmakers from the majority arrived at parliament for the 1 p.m. session Friday in bulletproof cars driven from a nearby hotel where dozens have been seeking refugee for weeks, fearing assassination.

The majority faction, which holds 68 seats in the 128-member parliament, has been the subject of assassinations over the last two years that many have ascribed to Syrian attempts to whittle down their slim majority in the legislature.

Three previous attempts by the parliament to elect a leader since September failed because of the inability to find a candidate acceptable to both sides.

Rival Lebanese leaders have been unable to reach agreement on a consensus candidate despite intense mediation efforts by European envoys and the U.N. secretary general.

On Thursday night, the foreign ministers of France, Italy and Spain, who together are fielding a majority of the U.N. peacekeepers in the south of the country, held talks with Lebanese leaders, but to no avail.

From reports by NPR's Ivan Watson and The Associated Press

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