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French Version

Berri postpones presidential vote for 17th time

With just days left before the upcoming Arab summit in Damascus, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri postponed on Monday the 17th Parliament session to elect a new president for Lebanon as the ruling coalition and the opposition remain deadlocked on the make-up of a future government and the shape of a new electoral law.

With the Lebanese government due to meet on Tuesday to decide on whether to send a Lebanese representative to the Damascus summit, Arab League chief Amr Moussa said Monday that he expected no last-minute breakthrough in Lebanon's political deadlock before the summit.

"What we have not succeeded in building in the last several months I don't think we will succeed in doing in the next 24 hours," he told Reuters.

Earlier on Monday, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Abu al-Gheit said that he feared a poor turnout at an Arab summit in Damascus this month if a session of the Lebanese Parliament to select a president is again postponed.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the Arab League, Ahmad Qattan, said Monday he would lead his country's delegation to the Damascus summit.

Although King Abdullah had not been expected to attend the summit himself given the strained ties with Syria, the decision not to send Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal is unprecedented.

Saudi Arabia's decision to send a relatively low-ranking diplomat to an Arab summit in Syria later this week reflects the rift between the two countries over the crisis in Lebanon, a Saudi official said Monday.

It shows "Saudi Arabia's dismay at Syria's failure to respond to Arab efforts to resolve the Lebanese crisis in line with the Arab League's initiative" to break the deadlock, he told AFP.

Saudi Arabia, along with Egypt, has accused Syria of blocking a vote in Lebanon - where Damascus had been the power broker for nearly three decades - to elect a president to replace Emile Lahoud whose term ended in November.

An Arab diplomat in Riyadh said Saudi Arabia was further dismayed when Syria sent a junior minister to the Saudi capital earlier this month to deliver an invitation to the summit.

The diplomat said that although Prince Saud had said during a visit to Algeria last week that he hoped the Arab summit would discuss the situation in Lebanon, contacts conducted by Egypt with Syria over the past few days showed that Damascus had not budged.

"This led Riyadh to conclude that Syria is taking a hard-line stand" despite its attempts to enlist the good offices of countries that have influence with Damascus, the diplomat told AFP, asking not to be identified.

Meanwhile, Berri said late Sunday that he would call rival politicians to engage in a national dialogue if an Arab summit later this week fails to resolve the country's protracted political crisis.

"If no solution is found to the Lebanese crisis after the Arab summit, I will hold consultations with Arab countries such as Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia ... in order to convene dialogue meetings," Berri said in a television interview.

The agenda of these meetings will focus on the formation of a national unity government and the drafting of a new electoral law," he added

Berri, a leader of the opposition backed by Syria and Iran, said he would launch invitations for a national dialogue in May, adding that he hoped that "all the [feuding] parties will respond to this call."

Also on Sunday, Hizbullah MP Mohammad Raad said the Shiite group would not accept any electoral law that harms its allies in the opposition.

"We do not mind any form of electoral law, be it based on a majority system or on proportional representation, but we will not accept any law that harms our allies," he said, referring to Free Patriotic Movement leader MP Michel Aoun and others.

The opposition earlier proposed applying the qada-based 1960 electoral law in the 2009 parliamentary elections.

But the ruling coalition immediately turned down the opposition's proposal, stressing that it was not against the qada as an electoral constituency, but would prefer to adopt a more "modern and developed" formula than the 1960 version.

Beirut 25-03-2008
The Daily Star

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