BEIRUT, (Reuters) – Lebanon’s rival leaders edged closer on Sunday towards confirming army chief General Michel Suleiman as the country’s new president, a senior political source said.
Parliament will try for an eighth time to hold a session to elect a new head of state on Tuesday. The country’s anti- and pro-Syrian camps had agreed on Suleiman as a consensus candidate for the post last week, days after it became vacant when Emile Lahoud’s term expired on Nov. 23. But Suleiman’s election has been delayed by differences over how to amend an article in the constitution that bans a serving public servant from running for office. Another stumbling block has been demands by Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun, a Hezbollah ally.
“Things are moving towards a conclusion,” the source said, adding that if a political deal was not completed in the coming hours, the vote could be delayed “for another day or two only”.
The source gave few details on how the hurdles might be overcome but other sources indicated intense talks with Aoun to convince him to ease his conditions or face being left behind by some allies.
Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, an opposition leader, and majority leader Saad al-Hariri last week held talks sponsored by visiting French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner.
The talks focused on the mechanism for electing Suleiman, shaping a national unity government and plans for a new law ahead of a 2009 parliamentary election.
Aoun has insisted that the next prime minister be a neutral figure, although his opposition colleagues were ready to accept a candidate chosen by the ruling majority, with Sunni Muslim Hariri emerging as early favourite.
Aoun also wants the size of his parliamentary bloc — the largest Christian gathering — to be fairly represented in the new government.
The opposition, including Berri, wants the amendment to bypass the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora which it sees as illegitimate since all its Shi’ite Muslim ministers quit 13 months ago.
The Western-backed ruling coalition says any amendment should go through Siniora in line with the constitution. Passing the amendment through the constitution would mean that the opposition recognises the government and all its decisions.
A parliamentary vote expected to confirm Suleiman as head of state was put off on Friday, for a seventh time, until Tuesday to give the rivals more time to reach agreement to secure the two-thirds quorum needed for the election.
Electing Suleiman would ease Lebanon’s worst political crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war. Lebanon’s president should be a Maronite Christian according to a power-sharing system.
Suleiman, 59, was appointed army chief in 1998 when Syria still dominated Lebanon. He has good ties to Hezbollah, the powerful armed group backed by Syria and Iran.
The governing coalition’s nomination of Suleiman was a setback for its leaders, who had hoped to elect someone who shared their agenda of curbing Syrian influence in Lebanon and seeking the disarmament of Hezbollah.