Lebanon crisis deepens as vote delayed again

Lebanon again postponed an election to choose a new head of state by a midnight Friday deadline amid continuing deadlock between rival political factions and fears of a dangerous power vacuum.

The country’s pro-Syrian President, Emile Lahoud, plans to step down when his term expires at midnight, but is studying measures to ensure the country’s security before he leaves, his spokesperson said.

With tanks and troops on the streets of Beirut, lawmakers from the Western-backed majority and the Hezbollah-led opposition had been scheduled to convene at 1pm local time in a last-ditch bid to pick a successor to Lahoud.

But the session was postponed, for the fifth time in two months.

“The session has been postponed until next Friday November 30 to allow for more discussions and in order to reach an agreement,” Parliament speaker Nabih Berri said in a statement.

The move threatens to plunge Lebanon — suffering its worst crisis since the 1975 to 1990 civil war — into further chaos.

According to Article 62 of the Constitution, if no candidate is agreed by Parliament to replace Lahoud, presidential powers pass to the government.

But Lahoud — who has been head of state since 1998 — has vowed not to hand executive power to the government of Prime Minister Fuoad Siniora, which he does not recognise.

“The postponement pushed him to study measures that he has to adopt in order to protect the security and stability of the country and in order to protect the unity of Lebanon, its land, people and institutions,” Lahoud’s spokesperson, Rafiq Shalala, said without elaborating.

“He will take his decision this evening before leaving the Baabda presidential palace at midnight.”

Lahoud, whose term in office was controversially extended under a Syrian-inspired constitutional amendment in 2004, has floated the idea of appointing an interim military government and he could also declare a state of emergency.

The long-running stand-off over the presidency has prompted fears of a power vacuum or the formation of two rival governments, as was the case at the end of the civil war.

“I don’t think there will be civil war again, but we fear incidents can happen on the streets as the two sides seem at a dead end over the presidency,” said Salim Kantar, a bank employee.

Beirut’s usually bustling streets were relatively quiet with some schools shut down and many people remaining home for fear of unrest.

The ruling coalition had called on all MPs to attend Friday’s session but the opposition, which is backed by Syria and Iran, said it would boycott the vote and warned against any attempt to elect a president without a two-thirds quorum.

Four previous sessions in the last two months to pick a successor to Lahoud had already been called off despite foreign envoys scrambling to Beirut to get the rival sides to agree before the midnight deadline.

The ruling coalition, which has 68 deputies in the 127-member parliament, has repeatedly said it would proceed to a simple majority vote if no agreement is reached, but it said this was no longer on the cards Friday.

“We have temporarily suspended our right to a simple majority vote,” MP Elias Atallah said.

The stand-off began after the Shi’ite militant group, empowered by its 34-day war with Israel last year, pulled its five ministers from the Cabinet in November 2006 to gain more representation in the government.

The crisis is widely seen as an extension of the regional confrontation pitting the United States against Iran and Syria.

Syria in 2005 was forced to withdraw its troops from Lebanon after a 29-year presence amid an international outcry over the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri.

Since then, a number of prominent anti-Syrian figures have been killed or wounded in attacks widely blamed on Damascus. — AFP

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