BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanese opposition group Hezbollah said on Sunday that failure to reach agreement on a new president in the week ahead could leave the divided country without a head of state for a long time.
Deputy Hezbollah leader Sheikh Naim Kassem also said the Western-backed government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora had no right to assume the powers of the presidency, which has been vacant since Friday when Emile Lahoud’s term ended.
Parliament has been called to convene on Friday — the sixth attempt to elect a replacement for the pro-Syrian Lahoud.
Kassem’s comments raised the prospect of a protracted stalemate over the fate of the presidency if the anti-Syrian governing coalition and the opposition, backed by Damascus, cannot agree on a new head of state.
Although there has been no deal on Lahoud’s successor, neither side has carried out threats of unilateral action that would have escalated their year-long power struggle and could have triggered violence.
Their rhetoric has also been calm, signaling a decision to contain the worst crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war.
“Come, let’s seize this opportunity,” Kassem said in reference to Friday’s election. Addressing the governing coalition, he said: “If you are serious, we can achieve the election within a week. Otherwise the period will be long.”
According to the constitution, the government assumes presidential powers in the absence of a head of state. But the opposition disputes the legitimacy of Siniora’s government because all of its Shi’ite Muslim ministers quit a year ago.
“We are facing a double vacuum — presidential and governmental,” Kassem said in an address to Hezbollah followers. “This government is illegitimate and unconstitutional. It doesn’t exist, so it can’t rule and it can’t exercise the role of the presidency.”
The post is set aside for a Maronite Christian under a political system that divides government along sectarian lines. Leaving the position empty is a blow to Christians in the only Middle East state where the job is reserved for them.
“We are now in a transitional period that could lead us to stability or could lead us to chaos and infighting, God forbid,” said Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir, head of the Maronite church.
“Therefore, everyone, especially decision-makers and those with responsibilities, must prove that they have seriousness and true nationalism,” he said.
Additional reporting by Nadim Ladki