Lebanon Presidential vote put off again for final chance

Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri on Saturday postponed Lebanon’s presidential election for a third time to allow rival political leaders a final chance to resolve a months-old deadlock.His office said the election, which is held by MPs, was postponed to November 21, just three days before the term of the incumbent, pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud, runs out.

Antoine Nasrallah, spokesman for Michel Aoun, the only declared candidate representing the Hizbollah-led opposition, said the decision to allow more time was taken in agreement with Saad Hariri, head of the parliamentary majority.

“It was expected, because up until now we have no consensus on a candidate and hopefully there will be one by the 21st,” Nasrallah told AFP.

The office of the speaker, who is in the opposition camp, said that Berri “decided to postpone the session scheduled for next Monday to Wednesday, November 21, at 10:30am”.

It was the third postponement of the election since September 25 amid a deadlock on a consensus candidate between parliament’s pro-Western ruling bloc and the opposition, which includes factions backed by Syria and Iran.

On a positive note, MP Mohammad Haidar of Hizbollah said: “In the last couple of days, things have appeared more optimistic than during the last week.

“And what makes us more optimistic are efforts by regional and international players to avoid the country plunging into chaos.”

But fears are running high that the row could lead to two rival governments and a return to the final years of the 1975-1990 civil war when two competing administrations battled for control.

Several politicians said earlier last week that despite intense pressure by foreign powers, particularly France and the United States, to break the current impasse, there was no indication the two sides were any closer to a compromise.

Both French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and his Italian counterpart Massimo d’Alema, part of a troika of EU ministers to visit the country last month, are due to return to Beirut next week to try to mediate a solution.

The head of the Arab League, Amr Musa, may also visit, well-informed sources said.

The current government has been paralysed since opposition forces withdrew six ministers from the Cabinet in November 2006 in a bid to gain more representation in government.

Boutros Harb, a candidate backed by the ruling majority, said Berri appeared to have opted for the latest delay to head off a constitutional chaos and a full-blown confrontation between the pro- and anti-Syrian camps.

“I think the new delay represents yet another reprieve so as to allow for an agreement to be struck,” he told AFP. “We are going to do our utmost to reach an accord, a compromise deal.” Parliament will be in permanent session during the last 10 days of Lahoud’s mandate and the majority, with 68 MPs in the 127-seat house, has threatened to go ahead on its own with a vote if no consensus candidate is found.

A two-thirds majority is required for a candidate to be elected by parliament in a first round of voting. In the event of a second round, an absolute majority suffices.

Lebanon’s president, a Maronite Christian by convention in the multi-confessional country, is elected by MPs rather than by popular suffrage.

The latest postponement takes the process to the 11th hour and comes on the 1,000th day since former premier Rafiq Hariri’s assassination that threw Lebanon into turmoil and which has yet to be resolved despite a UN probe.

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