BEIRUT (Reuters) – Deeply divided Lebanese leaders have postponed a presidential election until Friday to allow more time to agree a successor to the pro-Syrian incumbent, whose term expires that day.
The delay prolonged a political crisis that many fear could lead to rival administrations and violence in a country still rebuilding from its 1975-1990 civil war. The army strengthened security on Tuesday and urged people to avoid internal strife.
Parliament had been due to convene on Wednesday to elect a successor to President Emile Lahoud, but Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri said in a statement the vote would be delayed until Friday, the fourth postponement since September.
France has been leading the effort to push rival leaders towards a deal on the presidency, the latest move in a year-long power struggle between factions opposed to Syrian influence in Lebanon and others supported by Damascus.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who has been shuttling between the rivals, expressed hope there was still time to reach a deal.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s Chief of Staff, Claude Gueant, met Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus to seek support for Paris’s efforts, and Sarkozy himself spoke to Assad by telephone, Sarkozy’s office said.
In Beirut, hundreds of soldiers manned roadblocks and deployed armored vehicles around government buildings. “The army has started security arrangements,” a senior security source said.
Army chief General Michel Suleiman said: “Any attack on security is national treason and any weapon directed internally is a treacherous weapon.”
In a statement to soldiers to mark Independence Day, which falls on Thursday, he said the army should pay no attention to arguments “which have almost split the country into scattered parts”.
The army is one of the few state institutions that has functioned effectively during the political conflict between the Western-backed governing coalition and the opposition led by Hezbollah and backed by Syria and Iran.
Berri, a key opposition figure, and majority leader Saad al-Hariri have failed to agree on any of the names for president proposed by the head of the Maronite church. Hariri left for a trip to Moscow early on Tuesday.
Lebanon’s sectarian power-sharing system requires the head of state to be a Maronite. Political sources say the governing coalition wants member of parliament Robert Ghanem for the post while the opposition supports former minister Michel Edde.
France, which backs the governing coalition, said on Monday its mediation efforts were being thwarted.
Speaking in Tehran, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said Syria and France were working towards the same goal, Iran’s official IRNA news agency reported.
Hezbollah, a powerful member of the opposition, warned of a “catastrophic picture” without a deal. “Constitutional life would be gone with the wind,” Mohammed Raad, leader of the group’s parliamentary bloc, told al-Manar TV on Monday.
Agreement on the presidency is needed to guarantee a two-thirds quorum for the vote in parliament, where the governing coalition holds an absolute majority of just three.
Some members of the ruling coalition say it may call its lawmakers to elect a president if there is no deal. The opposition has said this would be unconstitutional.
The president has previously suggested he could hand his powers to army chief Suleiman — a step that the anti-Syrian majority faction would reject as unconstitutional.