Presidential Politics, Lebanon-Style

The Lebanese parliament failed to elect a new president Tuesday after the legislature was unable to attain the required quorum due to an opposition boycott. This result was expected by many Lebanon watchers.

Both sides did indicate that they were ready to talk, however. Farid Makari, the deputy house speaker, read a statement to reporters by the anti-Syrian parliamentarians, better known as the March 14 forces, in which they expressed their wish "to salvage the election and save Lebanon from falling into a presidential vacuum" through "constructive dialogue" with the opposition.

Members of the pro-government majority gathered in the chamber while most opposition members stayed in the hallways or nearby offices. The announcement to postpone the session to Oct. 23 was made after a bell rang three times to call the lawmakers into session. Opposition member Ali Hassan Khalil told reporters gathered at parliament today that the postponement should be seen as "a political chance for consensus more than an obstruction."

Parliamentarians from the ruling majority, several of whom have taken refuge in a nearby luxury hotel, were escorted to the session under tight security in light of the latest killing last week of one of their number in a car bombing. Some members of the majority wore white and red scarves on their shoulders, a symbol of the 2005 protest campaign, the so-called Cedar Revolution that drove Syrian forces out of Lebanon in the wake of the assassination of the country's former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Pictures of the slain premier and five other anti-Syrian MPs all assassinated in the past two years were placed on their empty seats along with a Lebanese flag.

'One Hand Can't Clap Alone'

Although parliament speaker Nabih Berri had summoned opposing factions to convene, it was clear that the session would not lead to an actual vote but would, however, allow for consultations among the rival parties. After an earlier meeting with the powerful Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, who heads the Maronite church, Lebanon's Catholic community, from which the country's heads of state are traditionally chosen, Berri spoke to reporters Monday.

"By Nov. 24, there will be a president of the Republic who will have the approval of all the Lebanese," he said. "I am optimistic but one hand cannot clap alone. By putting our hands together we could achieve a solution to satisfy all."

Prior to that and after a meeting with Berri, former President Amin Gemayel had agreed to use of the session as "consultative" to bring together rival politicians in the hope of thawing icy relationships and bridging opposite positions. "If a quorum isn't reached then we should use this opportunity for dialogue," Gemayel suggested.

But the failure to reach a quorum or consensus also emphasizes the deep divisions that are further complicated by the links opposing factions have with external influential powers, most notably the United States, France, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria and any other power vying for influence in the Middle East. The pro-government forces want to align the country with the United States, while the opposition favors close ties to traditional power spheres of influence like France and Syria. And herein lies the flurry of activity that is expected to ensue to find the so-called consensus candidate.

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.