BEIRUT, (Reuters) – Lebanon’s parliament on Monday postponed a presidential election until Dec. 22, the ninth such delay, because rival factions are still arguing over how to share power after the army commander becomes head of state.
The U.S.-backed governing coalition and the opposition supported by Syria have agreed on General Michel Suleiman as the next president. But a two-thirds quorum needed for the vote in parliament cannot be secured without a deal between the sides.
Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, a leading opposition figure, announced the delay to noon (1000 GMT) on Saturday after talks with rival leaders at the chamber. The presidency has been empty since pro-Syrian Emile Lahoud’s term ended on Nov. 23. The opposing camps have failed to reach a broad political deal despite intense French-led mediation, forcing repeated delays to a vote that was originally scheduled for Sept. 25.
The Hezbollah-led opposition wants guarantees it will have veto power in the next cabinet. The governing coalition says it does not oppose the idea but wants to leave the details until after Suleiman takes office and a new prime minister is named. “This can’t be agreed to by the incoming president and the incoming prime minister -to tie their hands with predetermined shares or seats in government,” majority MP Hadi Hbeish said.
Hezbollah MP Hussein Haj Hassan said the opposition wanted agreement in advance on a national unity government, a demand the majority has resisted for more than a year. “What the opposition wants is a complete political agreement in one basket,” he said.
A deal to elect Suleiman would ease Lebanon’s worst political crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war. Arab and Western states are concerned that a prolonged vacuum in the presidency will further destabilise the country.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called on Sunday for the election to take place without foreign interference. “Lebanon’s neighbours, particularly Syria, needs to encourage its allies and tell its allies to stop putting forward excuses for not going forward,” Rice said.
The rival camps had been at odds for weeks over who should be the new president before consensus emerged around Suleiman. He was appointed army chief in 1998 when Syria controlled Lebanon and has good ties to the Damascus-backed Hezbollah.
Political sources said the two sides might have found a loophole that would avoid the need to amend the constitution to allow a senior public servant to become president — exactly how to do this had been one area of dispute.
Suleiman had been the opposition’s preferred consensus candidate for the presidency, reserved for Maronite Christians according to Lebanon’s sectarian power-sharing system.
The ruling coalition swung behind him this month, saying it wanted to avoid a prolonged presidential vacuum.