(Reuters) - Lebanon is in a crucial week with the term of pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud ending on Friday and deeply divided politicians yet to agree on his successor.
France has been leading mediation efforts to reach agreement on a candidate acceptable to both the Western-backed governing coalition, which is opposed to Syrian influence in Lebanon, and the opposition led by the pro-Damascus Hezbollah.
But French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner complained on Monday that his country’s initiative was being blocked.
Failure to reach an agreement would deepen the country’s worst internal crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war. Many fear the conflict will lead to two rival governments and bloodshed.
Following are scenarios for what may unfold in the coming days.
As part of the French initiative, parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri, a leading opposition figure, and majority leader Saad al-Hariri have received a list of presidential candidates from the head of the Maronite Christian church. The two leaders are supposed to pick a candidate, who has to be a Maronite according to Lebanon’s sectarian power-sharing system.
Political sources say the list includes three moderate figures who could be acceptable to the sides. They are former minister Michel Edde, MP Robert Ghanem and former central bank governor Michel Khoury.
A parliament session to elect a new president was postponed for two days to Friday to give the rivals more time to agree.
A deal will guarantee the attendance of opposition legislators at the parliamentary session, securing a two-thirds quorum for the vote in the 128-seat chamber.
The new president will nominate a prime minister to form a cabinet.
The opposition would end a protest camp which it set up a year ago in central Beirut to demand the removal of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora’s government.
Failure to reach a deal could result in one or more of the following:
Some members of the governing coalition say the majority has the right to elect the new president without two thirds of the legislators in attendance. On this basis, the governing coalition could call its politicians to gather to elect a president. The coalition has a slim absolute majority of three.
Such an election would have to be convened outside parliament because only Berri has the authority to call sessions in the chamber. The opposition has said such a move would be tantamount to a coup. It would respond, but has yet to declare what it would do. Opposition sources say such a move could lead to large-scale confrontations on the streets.
GOVERNING COALITION DECIDES AGAINST ELECTING PRESIDENT, BUT
The governing coalition may decide against electing a president with an absolute majority but leave the Siniora government in place. Both the opposition and Lahoud fiercely dispute the legitimacy of this government since all its Shi‘ite Muslim ministers quit last year. Hezbollah has said this scenario is as bad as the governing coalition electing a president by absolute majority, but Hezbollah MP Mohammad Raad has said the sides could still work towards a consensus president even after the end of Lahoud’s term.
In either of the above scenarios, Lahoud may take the step of signing his powers over to a new administration before leaving office. He previously floated the idea of appointing army chief General Michel Suleiman to head a new cabinet. Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah on November 11 called on Lahoud to take a “salvation” measure if there was no resolution to the political conflict, appearing to back the formation of a parallel government. The governing coalition would reject any such move by Lahoud as unconstitutional.
The rival sides have accused each other of arming and training followers and the United Nations has expressed concern that they have been preparing themselves in case of a constitutional vacuum. Many Lebanese fear a further escalation in the political tension would quickly spill into the streets. The army has warned against violence and deployed to guarantee security.
Writing by Tom Perry in Beirut