December 10, 2007 / 5:36 PM / in 11 years

Syria shadow hangs over Lebanon vote, Harb says

BEIRUT (Reuters) - The shadow of Syrian influence hangs over Lebanon’s stalled presidential election, a former candidate for the post said on Monday, blaming Damascus’s allies for holding up the vote.

Boutros Harb also said recent Western overtures towards Damascus had sapped the momentum of the governing coalition, which has been fending off a political challenge by the Syria-backed opposition for more than a year.

“What is happening now with the presidential election — you feel or you smell the Syrian current, the Syrian influence,” said Harb, a leading member of the governing coalition which has worked to curb Damascus’s influence in Lebanon.

The presidency has been empty since November 24 after the term of the pro-Syrian Emile Lahoud ended. The rivals have agreed in principle to elect army chief General Michel Suleiman but the vote has yet to go ahead because the sides are haggling over the terms of a broader political deal.

A presidential election scheduled for Tuesday in parliament is also expected to be postponed. “The opposition is aiming to have more and more profit (from) this election. That’s why the election is not taking place,” said Harb, who had been one of the governing coalition’s preferred candidates for the post.

The opposition, led by Hezbollah, were seeking to secure “seats in cabinet, the person of the prime minister, who is going to be commander-in-chief of the army and so on”, he said.

Hezbollah, which is backed by both Iran and Syria, has spearheaded opposition to the governing alliance, waging a campaign aimed at securing more say in the government of a country dominated by Damascus until 2005.

“Syria knows that it cannot behave like it used to behave in the past,” Harb said. “But at the same time I cannot say that Syria decided not to intervene.”

LESS INTERNATIONAL SUPPORT

Syrian domination of neighboring Lebanon was brought to an end when it was forced to withdraw troops from the country by international pressure triggered by the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri in 2005.

Western backing from the governments of the United States and France has been crucial to the governing coalition’s efforts to break free from Syrian tutelage.

But signs of an end to Syria’s isolation by the United States and a shift in the foreign policy of France since President Nicolas Sarkozy took office have not boded well for March 14’s “Cedar Revolution”.

Harb said: “We don’t have any more Jacques Chirac who was with the Cedar Revolution bluntly. The international and regional environment changed. That’s why we feel the momentum, the international momentum had changed a little bit.

“It doesn’t mean that it turned against the 14th of March, (but) it’s not as warm as it used to be,” he said. The change in policy towards Damascus, which was invited to a U.S.-sponsored peace conference last month, had been “very big”, he said.

March 14 leaders had previously been against a Suleiman presidency, rejecting the idea of a constitutional amendment needed to allow a senior public servant to take the post.

But in a sudden shift of strategy last week, the coalition declared its support for him, swinging behind a figure who had been one of the opposition’s preferred candidates.

Harb opposed his allies’ shift, which he said was designed to find a way out of the crisis and not a capitulation as some observers have said. He withdrew his candidacy in protest of the shift but was still full of praise for the army commander.

Suleiman “has behaved very, very impartially,” Harb said. “He has good relations with everyone.”

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