BEIRUT (AFP) – French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner on Tuesday launched a fresh bid to break a political impasse in Lebanon that is threatening to derail the election of a president by a November 23 deadline.
His visit, the fifth in recent months, comes amid a flurry of diplomatic initiatives to nudge the country’s pro- and anti-Syrian camps to agree on a consensus candidate to replace the current head of state Emile Lahoud, whose mandate expires November 24.
Parliament speaker Nabih Berri has already cancelled three times special sessions for MPs to elect a successor to Lahoud and there are fears a last-ditch parliament session set for November 21 could also end in failure.
Kouchner met on Tuesday with Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir, the influential leader of the Christian Maronite community from which Lebanon’s president is traditionally drawn.
He was also to meet during his one-day visit with Prime Minister Fuad Siniora as well as Berri and a number of other politicians before meeting Sfeir again in the evening.
Kouchner told reporters after his first meeting with the patriarch that France was “deeply committed” to helping Lebanon break its one-year political deadlock.
“I have come to offer his beatitude France’s support,” he said.
US President George W. Bush meanwhile telephoned Siniora on Monday to offer his backing for the election of a president free from interference by neighbouring Syria.
Italy’s foreign minister and the head of the Arab League were also expected in Beirut later this week to try and break the impasse, which marks the country’s worst political crisis since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war.
The intense diplomatic activity comes as tension between the Western-backed ruling majority and the Hezbollah-led opposition mounted in recent days with each side accusing the other of treachery.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah raised the stakes at the weekend by describing Siniora’s government as a bunch of “thieves and murderers” and urging Lahoud to taking the necessary measures if no agreement is reached on his successor.
Members of the ruling coalition blasted his comments as an attempt to torpedo efforts toward a compromise and force the formation of a parallel government as was the case at the end of the civil war when two competing administrations battled it out.
“The current escalation marks a return to square one with Syria pulling all the strings,” Rajeh Khoury, a political analyst with leading Arabic daily An-Nahar told AFP.
Siniora’s government has been paralysed since the opposition, which includes factions backed by Syria and Iran, withdrew its six ministers from the cabinet in November last year in a bid to gain more representation in government.
Lebanon’s president, a Maronite Christian by convention in the multi-confessional country, is elected by MPs rather than by popular suffrage.
A two-thirds majority is required for a candidate to be elected by parliament in a first round of voting. In the event of a second round, an absolute majority suffices.
The parliamentary majority, with 68 MPs in the 127-seat house, has threatened to go ahead on its own with a presidential vote if no consensus candidate is found.
Lahoud for his part has threatened to appoint an interim military government if no agreement is struck, raising fears of a new civil war.