BEIRUT: Lebanon’s parliament failed on Wednesday to elect a president, for a second time in a week, raising fears the post will remain vacant amid tensions over neighbouring war-torn Syria.
Damascus ally the Hezbollah bloc refused to attend Wednesday’s session, ensuring parliament was left without the quorum needed to vote for a successor to incumbent President Michel Sleiman.
Parliament speaker “Nabih Berri has set ... May 7 as a new date to hold a parliamentary session, given the lack of quorum on Wednesday”, the official National News Agency reported.
Deputies are faced with a choice between Samir Geagea, a fierce opponent of the Syrian government and its ally Hezbollah, and Michel Aoun, who is backed by the Lebanese Shiite movement.
The animosity between the pair dates back to the civil war that ravaged Lebanon from 1975 to 1990.
Sleiman’s term expires on May 25 and the parliament has until then to elect his successor. But if it fails to do so, the government will assume all executive powers, a scenario Lebanon endured between 1988 and 2007.
Over the years, the choice of president in Lebanon has been dictated by foreign powers, particularly Syria, which dominated the Mediterranean country for nearly three decades.
Despite the withdrawal of its troops from Lebanon in 2005 and its own three-year conflict, Syria still has a say in Lebanon, largely through Hezbollah, whose forces have been fighting alongside those of the Damascus regime.
Hezbollah’s arsenal and its involvement in the Syrian war are the main bones of contention between Lebanon’s rival political camps supported by Damascus and Tehran on one side and Washington and Riyadh on the other.
Analysts say that this lack of consensus between the factions and their foreign sponsors is likely to leave Lebanon without a president beyond May 25.
“I am inclined to assume that we will not have presidential elections by the end of... the constitutional period” because the Hezbollah camp cannot accept Geagea and its March 14 rivals cannot accept Aoun, said Hilal Khashan, political science professor at the American University of Beirut.
“Lebanon does not feature prominently neither for Saudi Arabia nor for Iran right now,” said Khashan. “Even the US is not even interested in Lebanon, but in other issues in the region.”
The presidency is by tradition reserved for a candidate from the Christian Maronite community, in a multi-confessional system unique in the Arab world.
But the post is largely ceremonial, and Khashan said it is thus not a “burning issue” for Riyadh and Tehran, already opposed to each other over Syria, Yemen and Iran’s nuclear programme.
Parliament’s failure to reach consensus reflects the radical disagreement between Lebanon’s pro- and anti-Damascus camps.
Fiercely anti-Syria figure Geagea, Lebanon’s only civil war warlord to have been jailed at the end of the bloody conflict, defends his candidacy by saying he has sought forgiveness for his past “mistakes”.
His rival Aoun, an ex-army chief, fought against Geagea’s Lebanese Forces and also launched a “war of liberation” against Syria, before going into exile in France.
Aoun returned to Lebanon in 2005 but his stance towards Damascus changed radically and he became a key ally of Syria backer Hezbollah.
But as with the civil war, it may well be that neither man will emerge victorious from their latest, political battle for the presidency.
“Eventually, the Iranians and the Saudis are bound to reach a regional settlement, but it will take time,” analyst Khashan said, implying a consensus figure could eventually emerge.
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