Lebanon faces crucial week as president’s term ends

Lebanon faces a crucial week with the term of pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud ending on November 23 and the country’s divided politicians yet to agree on his successor.France is leading mediation efforts to reach agreement on a candidate acceptable to both the Western-backed governing coalition, which is opposed to Syrian influence in Lebanon, and the opposition led by the pro-Damascus Hezbollah.

Failure to reach an agreement would deepen the country’s worst internal crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war. Many fear the conflict will lead to two rival governments and could turn violent.

Following are scenarios for what may unfold in the next week.

THE SIDES AGREE

The head of Lebanon’s Maronite Christian church is in the process of drawing up a list of candidates for the presidency, which is reserved for a Maronite in Lebanon’s sectarian power-sharing system.

Parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri, a leading member of the opposition, and majority leader Saad al-Hariri are expected to pick from the list.

Parliament will convene on Wednesday and the consensus figure will be elected. If the leaders feel they are near a deal but need more time for talks, Berri could also call a session in the following three days.

A deal will guarantee the attendance of opposition legislators at the parliamentary session, securing a two-thirds quorum for the vote in the 128-seat chamber.

Several names have been mentioned as possible consensus figures by Lebanese media and politicians. Some Maronite figures have declared themselves candidates.

The new president will nominate a prime minister to form a new cabinet. A deal is expected to meet the opposition’s long-standing demand for more than a third of the seats in the cabinet, giving it veto power over government decisions.

The opposition would end a protest camp which it set up a year ago in central Beirut to demand the removal of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora’s government.

NO DEAL

Failure to reach a deal could result in one or more of the following:

MAJORITY ELECTS A PRESIDENT WITHOUT CONSENSUS

Some members of the governing coalition say the majority has the right to elect the new president without two thirds of the legislators in attendance. On this basis, the governing coalition could call its politicians to gather to elect a president. The coalition has a slim absolute majority of three.

Such an election would have to be convened outside parliament because only Berri has the authority to call sessions in the chamber.

The opposition has said such a move would be tantamount to a coup. It would respond, but has yet to declare what it would do.

GOVERNING COALITION DECIDES AGAINST ELECTING PRESIDENT, BUT

SINIORA GOVERNMENT STAYS

The governing coalition may decide against electing a president with an absolute majority but leave the Siniora government in place. Both the opposition and Lahoud fiercely dispute the legitimacy of this government since all its Shi’ite Muslim ministers quit last year. Hezbollah has said this scenario is as bad as the governing coalition electing a president by absolute majority. The opposition would certainly react, but again has yet to say what it would do.

LAHOUD APPOINTS A SECOND GOVERNMENT BEFORE LEAVING OFFICE

In either of the above scenarios, Lahoud may take the step of appointing a new government before leaving office, leaving Lebanon with two rival administrations. He previously floated the idea of appointing army chief Michel Suleiman to head a new cabinet. Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah this week called on Lahoud to take a “salvation” measure if there was no resolution to the political conflict, appearing to back the formation of a parallel government. The governing coalition would reject any such move by Lahoud as unconstitutional.

PROSPECTS OF VIOLENCE

The rival sides have accused each other of arming and training followers and the United Nations has expressed concern that they have been preparing themselves in case of a constitutional vacuum. Many Lebanese fear a further escalation in the political tension would quickly spill into the streets.

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