Presidential Politics, Lebanon-Style

Final Countdown

The final countdown started in earnest during Cardinal Sfeir's visit to Rome earlier this month and efforts to reach a compromise were said to be well advanced prior to the assassination of Antoine Ghanem. Despite the difficulty of assessing the effect of the assassination on reaching a compromise, it is possible that efforts may be resumed.

Meanwhile, and in typical Lebanese fashion, lists produced and circulated by both sides with names of candidates that might be acceptable are believed to be making the rounds. From New York, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al Faisal called for the election of a president acceptable to both the anti- and pro-Syrian factions.

"This is what we hope will happen -- that there be a consensus president in Lebanon. And this is what we believe everyone is striving for," the Saudi foreign minister said in an interview with Al Arabiya television.

Another sign of a possible thaw in the 10-month-old political crisis are the talks Berri held with March 14 leader Saad Hariri both by phone earlier and today in his office at parliament. They had not met for months.

Hariri is expected to visit Washington in early October, which will be ahead of the new election date and one can't help but wonder if the "list" will still be on the agenda. And has this list of consensual candidates been conveyed to the French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchnar and the American Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice? Their respective ambassadors in Lebanon have been making several high-profile visits to a number of key players in the country.

Lawmaker Murdered

Damascus has accused Lebanon's parliamentary majority of trying to sabotage the presidential election. "Syria won't intervene in Lebanese internal affairs, particularly in a presidential election," the government mouthpiece newspaper Tishrin said in Saturday's lead article.

But it said "things in Lebanon were not going in the right direction" and it accused the United States and Israel of pulling the government's strings in Beirut. It added that the parliamentary majority "is being pushed by the United States and Israel to hit at the unity of Lebanon in sabotaging the presidential election."

Iran said the murder of the anti-Syrian lawmaker was aimed at causing instability ahead of the crucial presidential vote. "This terrorist act aimed to cause instability in Lebanon in the current sensitive situation," foreign ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said. Hosseini blamed Israel, Iran's arch regional enemy. "It comes from ominous plots of the Zionist regime, which has always been threatening Lebanese sovereignty, independence, security, and people's solidarity," he said in a statement issued on the official Iranian news agency.

Failure to agree on a compromise candidate and thus to elect a president could set the stage for two rival governments that would compete for power, risking more instability and violence. U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon has warned that the naming of two rival governments in Lebanon would be a worst-case scenario. In order to avoid this "there has to be dialogue and a new president has to be elected in line with the constitution," stressed Ban in a recent interview with a Lebanese newspaper. "It is important the Lebanese people reconcile, and particularly the political leaders," he added.

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