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French Version

Lebanon fails to elect president

BEIRUT, Lebanon - Lebanon's parliament failed to elect a successor to President Emile Lahoud just hours before he was set to leave office after it was unable to convene due to an opposition boycott Friday.

The failure puts the country in a potentially explosive political vacuum.

Speaker Nabih Berri said in a statement that the session was postponed for a week until Nov. 30 to give more time "for additional consultations to reach a consensus on electing a president."

The opposition-aligned Berri made the decision 30 minutes after the legislature failed to muster the necessary two-thirds quorum to begin voting. It followed talks with leaders of the parliamentary majority.

Scheduling another session in a week as talks between the two sides continue could defuse for now any potential street confrontations.

While both sides said efforts were underway to prevent a further deterioration, each camp was waiting for the other to make the first move. The failure to elect a new president could throw the country deeper into political chaos and violence.

In the absence of a president, the anti-Syrian government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora takes executive power under the constitution. But the pro-Syrian Lahoud has vowed not to hand his authorities over to Saniora's administration, considering it unconstitutional after all five ministers of the Shiite Muslim community quit a year ago.

"Any step taken by Fouad Saniora to take over the presidency's duties ... within hours the opposition will be on the streets to bring him down by force," warned opposition politician Wiam Wahhab on Hezbollah's al-Manar TV late Thursday.

The most dangerous scenario is that Lahoud could create an alternative government and hand it his power. Saniora's Western-backed government would likely refuse to step aside, leaving Lebanon with two rival governments, much like during the last two years of the 1975-90 civil war.

A compromise possibility is that Lahoud will entrust his security powers to the heads of the military, a move that the government would likely not oppose — effectively putting the situation on hold to allow further talks on a candidate.

"We are giving wide space to the continuation of dialogue and consultations," said Akram Chehayeb of a hard-line faction in the parliament backing Saniora. "We want to preserve civil peace."

Others in the majority said they would not take any drastic measures such as electing one of their own in a simple majority ignoring the opposition boycott.

Walid Jumblatt, a prominent leader in the majority, said afterwards that he continues to hold out for consensus on a candidate, stressing that the priority was to prevent the political tensions from turning into violence.

"We will continue to work for consensus and national peace," he told reporters.

Ahead of Friday's events, army commander Gen. Michel Suleiman has ordered soldiers "not to be lenient or inactive" in confronting possible troublemakers, calling on his troops to ignore the politics and "listen to the call of duty."

The military has been on alert for several days. On Friday morning, hundreds of troops in tanks, armored carriers and jeeps deployed along intersections leading to the Lebanese capital and around the downtown area where the parliament building is located.

The city was normal, but traffic was lighter than usual. Most schools closed on their own accord and those that did not had few students, with buses arriving empty after parents decided to keep their children home for fear of trouble.

Lawmakers from the majority arrived at parliament for the 1 p.m. Friday in bulletproof cars driven from a nearby hotel where dozens have been seeking refugee for weeks fearing assassination.

The majority, anti-Syrian faction, who hold 68 seats in the 128-member parliament, have been the subject of assassinations over the last two years that many have ascribed to Syrian attempts to whittle down their slim majority in the legislature.

Three previous attempts by the parliament to elect a leader since September failed because of the inability to find a candidate acceptable to both sides.

Rival Lebanese leaders have been unable to reach agreement on a consensus candidate despite intense mediation efforts by European envoys and the U.N. secretary general.

On Thursday night, the foreign ministers of France, Italy and Spain, who together are fielding a majority of the U.N. peacekeepers in the south of the country, held talks with Lebanese leaders, but to no avail.

Beirut 23-11-2007

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