|Analysts divided over prospects for consensus
|'We have to avoid a vacuum and work on that till the last minute'
Only 17 days remain until President Emile Lahoud's term in office expires and with it a deadline for MPs to elect a new president and avoid a vacuum in the top job.
Analysts and politicians said Thursday that the next two weeks are crucial. Three possible scenarios could emerge: a president is elected by a simple majority, a consensus is hammered out before the November 24 deadline, or no president is elected and the Council of Ministers assumes presidential powers.
The United States supports electing a president from the ruling coalition, even if such a president is elected with a simple majority in an electoral session held outside Parliament for security reasons.
Political analyst Simon Haddad told The Daily Star that chances for a consensus are faint to non-existent and despite all international effort in that direction, diplomacy is not getting anywhere. Haddad said Change and Reform bloc leader MP Michel Aoun seems unwilling to relinquish his claim on the presidency.
"One possible scenario is that MPs proceed to elect a new president with the deputies who attend, half plus one or a little more. That would happen in the last 10 days of Lahoud's term in office," Haddad said, adding that as off November 14, Parliament will be considered convened and in session until a president is elected.
Haddad said the venue of the parliamentary session is unimportant: "In the past MPs met in the Defense Ministry, at Qoleilat airbase and along the dividing green line in Beirut during the Civil War." He said majority MPs can even meet at their current residence in the Phoenicia Intercontinental hotel.
After elections, Haddad said, there could be some "angry reactions" and a strong protest movement by the opposition. "All reactions will likely be kept under control to avoid a repetition of angry protests and violent confrontations that took place in Beirut in January this year," Haddad said. He said the army will likely intervene if the opposition occupy ministries and state institutions.
One scenario Haddad does not think is feasible is the present government staying in power: "It is unlikely that the government of [Prime Minister] Fouad Siniora will assume presidential powers should a presidential vacuum emerge as there will be a Christian backlash against a Sunni assuming presidential powers and [parliamentary majority leader MP Saad] Hariri will not go in that direction."
Haddad said Syria is hindering consensus because the United States is refusing to talk directly to the Syrians. On a positive note, he said that nothing prevents a last-minute consensus from being reached.
Legal and constitutional expert Ziyad Baroud told The Daily Star he remains hopeful that a consensus can still be reached even at the last minute. "It is not necessary to elect a president on November 12, just before the 24th of the month. It is still not far-fetched to elect a president with a two-thirds majority, I remain optimistic until the 24th," Baroud said, adding that there is a Lebanese interest that consensus is achieved.
A less desirable scenario is that the deadline passes and no president is elected, creating a vacuum in the presidency. "According to Article 62 of the Constitution, the Cabinet, not the prime minister, will assume presidential powers by delegation if the presidency is vacant. But since December last year the present government has been considered unconstitutional by a large segment of the Lebanese, so it will face problems," Baroud said. He said a third scenario in which the ruling coalition elects a president by half plus one faces constitutional hurdles.
Political science professor Selim Sayegh, who served as an adviser to former President Amin Gemayel, told The Daily Star that the ruling coalition faces only one alternative which is to continue dialogue and double efforts to reach consensus.
Asked what would happen if November 24 comes and no new president is elected, Sayegh said: "Our position is clear, we have to avoid a vacuum and work on that till the last minute, what we do not want is a transitional government."
"We must not think of the presidential election as a zero-sum game or the end of the world," Sayegh said, adding that even if a president is elected from the March 14 alliance, he will have to operate in an objective and realistic way and cope with many constraints as well as maintain a domestic and regional balance, thus giving opposition parties ample safeguards.
Sayegh said the present pattern of political alliances has to be transcended, a process started with the meetings between Aoun and both Gemayel and Hariri. "All these meetings are pushing toward consensus, but this does not mean we bring a president from nowhere, with no program," Sayegh said, adding that in any event civil strife and use of force are never an option.
Change and Reform bloc MP Ibrahim Kanaan told The Daily Star that a president elected by half plus one of MPs would be unacceptable in the present international environment, as neither the Maronite church nor Aoun, who heads the largest Christian parliamentary bloc, support it. "Even if a group of Christians, as small as they are, support it, it will not happen," Kanaan said.
"Internationally, France, the Vatican and the EU with their [diplomacy] toward Syria indicate that they are not heading toward bringing a conflict president but to preserve the Constitution," he added.
Kanaan said that one scenario has to prevail to ensure that elections are 100 percent Lebanese, that a vacuum does not emerge and that a president is not elected by a half plus one majority of MPs.
"The remaining days or weeks are crucial. We are in favor of foreign support to ensure elections proceed without foreign interference," he said.
Kanaan said Aoun views himself as the ideal solution and consensus formula to pluck the country out of crisis, adding that the FPM leader has a strong political program and is capable of striking a balance and ensuring national partnership.
The Daily Star