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'Vacuum' looms as Lebanese lawmakers fail to choose a president

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanese lawmakers failed for a third time to choose a president on Wednesday, raising fears the seat will remain vacant after President Michel Suleiman’s term expires in less than three weeks.

Lebanon's President Michel Suleiman speaks during the third Lebanon Economic Forum in Beirut March 8, 2014 file photo. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

Parliament speaker Nabih Berri called a new session on May 15, but politicians said they expected disagreements over Suleiman’s replacement could drag on for months after he leaves office on May 25.

Any candidate would likely have to garner some support from the two main political blocs - Shi’ite Muslim Hezbollah’s March 8 alliance and the rival Sunni-led March 14 coalition - to win the necessary majority from parliament’s 128 deputies.

But tensions worsened by the increasingly sectarian war in neighbouring Syria, where Sunni rebels are fighting to overthrow Hezbollah ally President Bashar al-Assad, have hardened the stalemate between the two sides.

Hezbollah and the Sunni Future Movement have failed to agree on a candidate and Lebanon’s Maronite Christians, granted the presidency under the country’s confessional power sharing system, are split between the two camps.

“The continuing lack of quorum indicates that a president will not be elected before May 25, and therefore there will be a vacuum,” one prominent political source who asked not to be named said.

“While the issue may move at a faster pace after May 25, agreeing on a president could take time, perhaps months.”

Last month former warlord Samir Geagea, a longtime opponent of Assad, won the backing of deputies in his March 14 bloc but obtained only 48 votes compared to the 52 blank slips returned by March 8 lawmakers.

Wednesday’s vote was called off after March 8 deputies boycotted the session, leaving it without the two-thirds quorum needed for the vote to go ahead.

The deadlock comes less than two months after Prime Minister Tammam Salam ended a year-long government vacuum by winning a vote of confidence in his new cabinet.

Speaking to Lebanese radio, lawmaker Marwan Hamadeh said Salam’s government would assume presidential functions in the event Suleiman left office before a replacement was found.

“There’s nothing new in the presidential election file unless something dramatic and unexpected happens,” he said. “The vacuum will happen after May 25.”‮‮‮‬‬‬‬‬‬

Lebanon badly needs leadership to cope with the fallout of the three-year-old Syrian war on security and the economy, as well as deal with perennial issues like electricity outages, decaying infrastructure and public sector wage disputes.

“The call to elect a president is as great as Lebanon’s needs,” Maronite church leaders said in a statement after a monthly meeting. “We are worried by talk by some lawmakers about a vacuum. It as if they are announcing their own deficiencies.”

Former army chief Michel Aoun, who is part of the March 8 alliance, has said he will stand for president if there is a consensus to support him, but so far no such agreement has emerged.

Writing by Alexander Dziadosz