BEIRUT, (Reuters) – Lebanese leaders were close to finalising an agreement to elect the country’s army chief as president, with France’s foreign minister expected to arrive in Beirut on Tuesday to help seal the deal.
Rival Lebanese leaders have all come out in support of General Michel Suleiman to take the presidency, vacant since Nov. 23 when the term of pro-Syrian Emile Lahoud ended. But while the long-sought consensus on one candidate has finally emerged, the anti-Syrian governing coalition and the Hezbollah-led opposition, backed by Damascus, have yet to work out all the details to conclude an agreement.
Parliament has been called to elect a president on Friday, but the vote will only go ahead then if the deal is done. A senior political source said the election may have be put off for a few days to allow time to finalise the agreement. “After agreement on General Michel Suleiman, (French Foreign Minister Bernard) Kouchner is due in Beirut to complete the mission,” the source said.
Kouchner led previous European mediation efforts to forge an agreement. A deal would defuse a power struggle that has paralysed Lebanon for more than a year and triggered the country’s worst internal strife since the 1975-1990 civil war.
Parliament has repeatedly failed to elect a president because of lack of agreement on a candidate between the majority, backed by the United States, and the opposition, backed by Syria and Iran.
Neither side has enough lawmakers to secure a two-thirds quorum for the vote, leaving the country without a president for the first time since 1989.
Suleiman, 59, assumed his post in 1998 when Syria still controlled Lebanon. He has good ties with Hezbollah.
The governing coalition has worked to try to curb Syria’s influence since it was forced to withdraw troops from Lebanon in 2005. It had hoped to replace Lahoud, a close Damascus ally, with one of its own. But the governing coalition now see Suleiman as their only option, preferring him to a presidential vacuum that could destabilise Lebanon. Both sides have retreated from threats of unilateral action that could have triggered violence.
The source said a deal on Suleiman would include agreement on the shape of the new government and the outline of an election law for parliamentary elections in 2009.