BEIRUT, (Reuters) – Lebanon’s parliament failed on Friday to grasp its last chance to elect a head of state before pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud leaves office at midnight, creating a vacuum that many fear could lead to violence.
Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri, a Shi’ite opposition leader, put off the vote for a fifth time because rival factions were deadlocked. He delayed the session for a week. “To allow for more consultations to arrive at the election of a president…the session is postponed to Friday, Nov. 30,” Berri said in a statement read on his behalf.
The delay means the presidency, always held by a Maronite Christian under Lebanon’s sectarian power-sharing system, will be vacant for at least a week. Unless a consensus candidate emerges soon, the country could end up saddled with competing administrations as at the end of its 1975-1990 civil war.
Concern about the political impasse and possible instability pushed the Beirut stock exchange index down 4 percent.
Prime Minister Fouad Siniora’s Western-backed cabinet will assume presidential powers until a new head of state is elected, even though the opposition challenges its legitimacy.
Lahoud, who has sworn not to hand over to the Siniora cabinet, was due to make a statement shortly before leaving office. He could entrust Lebanon’s security to the army or take more drastic options that the government would reject.
French-led mediation efforts failed to resolve a dispute over the presidency which reflects a regional struggle pitting Washington against Syria and Iran, both allies of Hezbollah.
The United States and its local allies blame Syria for the deadlock. Hezbollah and its Christian partners say the majority bloc wants to keep them from their rightful share of power. They accuse Washington of seeking to control Lebanon.
Portugal, current holder of the rotating presidency of the 27-nation European Union, appealed to all Lebanese parties to continue talks to reach a deal as soon as possible. “The EU presidency calls all concerned to respect the Lebanese constitution and to abstain of all actions that could upset public order and the security of the citizens,” it said in a statement.
More than 100 lawmakers from both camps went to parliament in downtown Beirut, but opposition MPs did not enter the assembly chamber in line with a boycott declared a day earlier.
Before announcing the delay, Berri held separate meetings with majority leaders Saad al-Hariri and Walid Jumblatt, a sign the rival camps have not yet burned all their bridges. “We are for consensus and we will remain for consensus,” Hariri said. He later met Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir and said he had promised to pursue talks with Berri to find a consensus candidate. “We will not leave the country in a vacuum,” he said. Some majority MPs favour using their slim edge in parliament to elect a president if the quest for consensus fails. “It is the right of the majority to practise its constitutional right,” said George Adwan of the Christian Lebanese Forces party.
Lahoud, 71 and a former army chief, has served nine years as president. His six-year term was extended for three years in 2004 at the behest of Syria, then the dominant power in Lebanon.
Anti-Syrian factions proved unable to remove him, even after Damascus withdrew its troops in 2005 amid an outcry over the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.
Lebanon’s prolonged political crisis has created despondency among its 4 million people and spurred emigration. “I am from the generation which lived through the civil war, which destroyed our dreams,” said Charbel Faris, a 55-year-old artist, urging the politicians to end the crisis. “Enough, we’ve had enough of dancing on the blade of a sword.”
Security forces deployed across Beirut, especially around parliament and a luxury hotel where dozens of majority MPs have stayed for two months in fear of attacks like those that have killed eight anti-Syrian politicians and journalists since 2005.
The army has warned against any internal strife. Both sides have accused each other of arming their supporters but their leaders have said they are committed to stability and peace.