BEIRUT, (Reuters) – Anti-Syrian lawmakers gathered at Lebanon’s parliament under tight security on Tuesday for a session intended to elect a new president, but an opposition boycott was expected to foil any vote.
Thousands of Lebanese troops and armed police guarded the parliament building in downtown Beirut as MPs arrived under armed escort from a heavily guarded seafront hotel where many have been staying.
The Western-backed governing bloc known as March 14 fears more assassinations to reduce its slim majority after last week’s car bombing that killed Christian MP Antoine Ghanem. The opposition has said their deputies will not participate in the session — meaning a two-thirds quorum needed to elect a successor to pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud — whose term ends on Nov. 23, will not be achieved. The opposition wants a deal on a consensus candidate before its MPs will attend.
Disputes over the election reflect deep divisions in Lebanon between factions which want to align the country with the West and those which favour close ties with Syria and Iran.
Two pro-government MPs walked into parliament carrying a red banner with pictures of Ghanem and five other anti-Syrian MPs slain in the past two years, including former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. “Don’t boycott the nation,” the banner read. “September 25: The heart of Beirut trembles,” the frontpage headline of the pro-opposition al-Akhbar newspaper said, reflecting anxiety among ordinary Lebanese. “The whole March 14 will attend (the session)… to reaffirm our commitment to elect a (new) president…,” anti-Syrian MP Fouad al-Saad told Voice of Lebanon radio.
Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, a close Damascus ally and leading opposition member, was due to go to his office in the chamber and possibly meet March 14 leaders there. Berri was expected to call another electoral session in October. “I’d like to reassure the Lebanese that the climate is not as grim as everyone imagines,” he said on Monday after talks with Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir, spiritual leader of Lebanon’s Maronite Christians. “There will be a president for Lebanon before Nov. 24 with the consensus of all the Lebanese, God willing,” he said.
Majority leader Saad al-Hariri said Tuesday’s session was a chance to “open the door to a solution and dialogue”. The March 14 bloc had hoped to elect one of its own members in the first presidential election since Syrian troops were forced to leave Lebanon in 2005 after Hariri’s assassination.
Security was tight around the parliament building, just a short walk from a street encampment set up by the opposition in December as part of a campaign against Prime Minister Fouad Siniora’s Western-backed government.
Troops and police lined the streets leading to parliament to provide safe passage for MPs, while others deployed across central Beirut, blocking off roads and removing parked cars.
The political crisis, Lebanon’s worst since the civil war, spilled into street clashes in January that recalled the 1975-1990 conflict. Failure to agree on a president could result in two governments — a scenario which observers say would lay the ground for a new conflict and split the army.
Several Lebanese leaders have voiced concern over reports that some factions have been arming and training activists.