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Lebanon's Presidential Vote Delayed Again

By Challiss McDonough

Lebanon's Presidential Vote Delayed Again

Lebanon's speaker of parliament has postponed the vote for a new president for the seventh time despite agreeing on who should get the job. Lawmakers are wrangling over other issues, including cabinet posts and the prime minister's job.

News of the delay came after last-minute meetings in Parliament between ruling coalition parliamentary leader Saad Hariri and the opposition Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berry.

Afterward, a spokesman for Berry read a brief statement saying the vote was rescheduled for Tuesday.

The move was not a surprise. Politicians from both sides had been saying that although there is finally agreement that army chief General Michel Suleiman should be the next president, the two sides are still divided on a host of other issues, including which cabinet posts will go to the opposition and who will get the prime minister's job.

The ruling coalition, known as March 14, wants to have the presidential vote first and decide on those issues later, but a key opposition leader, Gen. Michel Aoun, is refusing to back down from his demands. He had wanted to be president himself, and agreed to back General Suleiman only under a series of conditions, including a two-year term for the new president. He also wants neutral prime minister. The ruling coalition wants that job to go to Saad Hariri, son of the slain former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Some March 14th members could barely conceal their anger about the new delay.

Social Affairs Minister Nayla Mouwad called the opposition demands a "constitutional coup" and placed the blame on General Aoun. She demanded that he "stop putting up new obstacles" to getting the government on track again.

Despite the political chaos and a two-week vacancy in the president's office, life in Lebanon has continued pretty much as normal. The shops and restaurants are full, and the streets are clogged with traffic.

Political science professor Sami Baroudi of Lebanese American University calls it "an anomaly" that a country could survive

"I mean, it's amazing how normal life is in Lebanon, despite all of these institutions that are not doing their job, in spite of this vacancy," he said.

Baroudi thinks the Lebanese people have been calm and patient as their leaders wrangle over the shape of the next government, but also thinks a political vacuum like this needs to be filled as quickly as possible.

But the standoff over the presidency is just the latest development in a political crisis that has dragged on for over a year, paralyzing the government and all but shutting down the parliament.

Political analyst Amal Saad-Ghorayeb of the Carnegie Endowment Middle East Center says she is a little troubled by what all of this says about the health of Lebanon's state institutions.

"Yes, I think we can continue for quite some time without a president, with a paralyzed government and with a defunct parliament. But that's a bad thing," she said. "And what this indicates is that we've never really had institutions which run the country."

She adds that naming a new president, or even breaking the deadlock over the cabinet balance of power, will not really solve the core issues that underlie this political crisis. She says one thing that would go a long way toward doing that would be overhauling Lebanon's complicated, controversial election law.

Under Lebanon's sectarian-based political system, the presidency is reserved for a Maronite Christian, the prime minister is always a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of parliament is a Shiite.


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