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Lebanon's Partliament Plans to Select President Friday

By Challiss McDonough
07 December 2007

Lebanon's parliament is scheduled to meet Friday to vote on the country's next president, but virtually nobody believes the vote will actually take place. It is likely to be postponed for a seventh time, leaving the country without a president even though the two sides have actually agreed on one. VOA Correspondent Challiss McDonough has more from Beirut.

For months, Lebanon's feuding political factions were unable or unwilling to agree on a compromise candidate for president, which under the Lebanese confessional system must be a Maronite Christian.

The last president, Emile Lahoud, stepped down two weeks ago when his term expired, and the presidency has been vacant since then. But last week, there was a breakthrough, and the two sides agreed that the army chief, Gen. Michel Suleiman, would be their compromise candidate.

Sami Baroudi, a professor of political science at Lebanese American University, says although Gen. Suleiman is seen as having close ties to Syria and to Hezbollah, he has also been one of the few public figures to avoid taking sides in the political crisis that has engulfed Lebanon over the last year. "As an army commander he was able to stay out of the fray between the opposition and the loyalists, and I think this is what you need at this point - a president who's not identified with any camp, and I think a president who can sort of inject some fluidity to a very rigid, polarized political situation."

Even though the two sides have at last managed to agree on who will become the next president, it is still considered unlikely that the vote will actually take place anytime soon. The Lebanese constitution must be amended to allow a sitting public servant to become president, but the real reason for the delay is political wrangling over what the next government will look like.

The opposition, led by Hezbollah and Michel Aoun, are demanding resolutions to a set of other issues that have been at the core of Lebanon's political crisis over the last year. They want a national unity government with certain ministries awarded to the opposition. They also want Gen. Suleiman's term in office to be shorter than the usual six years. The ruling coalition, known as March 14, argue that those issues can be solved later, but the presidential vote should be held right away to end the political vacuum at the top.

Political analyst Amal Saad-Ghorayeb of the Carnegie Endowment Middle East Center says by the time Gen. Suleiman is actually elected, it is likely that most of the major decisions about his government will already have been made. "No, Michel Suleiman is clearly not calling the shots here. And that's the reason why he was chosen, actually, because he is a low-profile, depoliticized, neutral political figure. He's actually a military figure, not a political one. And he is not seen as either a powerful or an influential figure, and that is precisely why he has been chosen," he said.

In the meantime, the standoff that has paralyzed Lebanon's government drags on. The presidency is only the most recent institution to go into suspended animation, parliament did not meet at all for nearly a year, and the cabinet ministers have sequestered themselves in the main government complex out of fear for their safety.

Saad-Ghorayeb says it may well be possible for Lebanon to continue functioning in this governmental limbo for quite some time - but she thinks that is a very worrying sign for the country.

"Just how long can Lebanon continue without these institutions? And the point is, the problem is, that it has survived and we haven't had all-out chaos without these institutions. So I would say that the longer we're able to continue like this, the worse it is, because it basically means that we've never had institutions in Lebanon. It isn't institutions that have run the country but rather sectarian leaders," he said.

The presidential vote in parliament scheduled for Friday was not canceled in advance, leaving open the possibility of a last-minute deal. But politicians indicated it was unlikely that the parties would work out a deal in time. The French foreign minister has been meeting with leaders of both sides since Tuesday in an effort to forge an agreement, but both sides have continued to accuse each other of blocking the deal.

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