Lebanon’s parliament failed 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 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 rival Christian leaders dates back to the civil war that ravaged Lebanon from 1975 to 1990.
Sleiman’s term expires on May 25 and parliament has until then to elect a successor. If it fails to do so, the government will assume all executive powers, a scenario Lebanon experienced in 1988 and in 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 Riyadh and Washington on the other.
Analysts say the lack of a consensus between the factions and their foreign sponsors is likely to leave Lebanon without a president beyond May 25.
– ‘Not a burning issue’ –
“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 Maronite Christian community.
But the post is largely ceremonial, and Khashan said it is thus not a “burning issue” for Riyadh and Tehran, whose regional rivalry is currently focused on Syria and Yemen.
Parliament’s failure to reach consensus reflects the hostility between the rival standard-bearers.
Fiercely anti-Syria figure Geagea, Lebanon’s only civil war warlord to have been convicted and jailed, 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.
He 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 battle.
“Eventually, the Iranians and the Saudis are bound to reach a regional settlement, but it will take time,” analyst Khashan said.
– Seven soldiers wounded –
Meanwhile in a fresh sign of the risks of spillover from the conflict in neighbouring Syria, Syrian rebels ambushed a Lebanese army patrol on the outskirts of the border town of Arsal wounding seven soldiers, a security source told AFP.
Hours later, the Syrian air force struck the Lebanese Sunni town, which is host to more than 100,000 Syrian refugees.
The Lebanese army deployed in Arsal on March 19.
The town, which is a major rebel supply route, has suffered repeated strikes by the Syrian air force, some of them deadly.