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    Middle East
     Oct 12, 2007
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Political infighting hinders Lebanon stability
By Benedetta Berti

The recent failure to elect a successor to current President Emile Lahoud and the deepening political fragmentation in Lebanon pose a serious challenge to already precarious local stability and governability. Furthermore, the ongoing escalation of violence only complicates the scenario and worsens the ongoing political crisis.

The presidential deadlock
The Lebanese parliament reconvened on September 25 to elect a successor to the current President, Emile Lahoud, whose

mandate expires on November 23. This electoral appointment was also the occasion for the parliament to gather in a formal session for the first time in almost a year.

The legislative body had in fact not met since November 2006, when disagreement over the creation of a national unity government between the March 14 coalition and the Hezbollah-Amal opposition bloc led the latter to initiate a political boycott, causing the de facto paralysis of the Lebanese government.

However, existing political and procedural disagreements between the two main political coalitions, and the renewed climate of political violence within the country, led to a failure of the first electoral round and to the postponement of the parliamentary session to October 23. Currently, numerous outstanding issues severely undermine the possibility of electing the new Lebanese president.

First, the parties have so far failed to concur on a joint presidential nominee, as proposed by the parliamentary speaker and member of the opposition, Nabih Berri, who had put forth a national reconciliation initiative based on the nomination of a consensus candidate.

The negotiations between the opposition and the majority coalition have been stalled over the determination of the procedures for the presidential election. The Lebanese constitution - in its Article 49 - establishes that the president must be elected by a two-thirds majority in the first electoral round, or by an absolute majority after the first ballot.

Therefore, the March 14 alliance argues that, in case the two-thirds quorum is not reached in the first electoral round, the government has the power to choose a successor to Lahoud relying on a simple majority. This interpretation would empower them to elect the president without the need to rely on the opposition (as the March 14 coalition has 68 of the 128 available seats). On the other hand, the Hezbollah-led bloc strongly rejects this constitutional interpretation and insists on the two-thirds quorum requirement, which would allow it to retain its veto power.

The debate and disagreement over the electoral procedures reflect the underlying conflict of interests between the parties, which has prevented them from nominating a consensus candidate. In fact, the replacement of Emile Lahoud is seen by both the March 14 coalition and the opposition parties as a strategic opportunity to shift the current balance of power in their favor.

Lahoud, a Maronite Christian, has been in charge of the presidency since 1998, as determined by the current Lebanese power-sharing arrangement. Although his mandate officially expired in 2004, he was granted a three-year extension of his term due to a controversial constitutional amendment brokered by Syria, which always viewed Lahoud as an important ally within Lebanon.

Since his re-election in 2004, relations between the pro-Western and anti-Syrian March 14 coalition and the president have been increasingly tense, and the termination of Lahoud's presidential term is seen by the majority parties as a unique opportunity to consolidate their power within Lebanese politics, as well as to strongly diminish pro-Syrian influences within the Lebanese arena.

Replacing Lahoud with an ally of the majority appears to be particularly important now that popular support for the governing coalition is, at least to some degree, waning. A recent example of this trend was the defeat of the March 14 candidate in the August 2007 elections for the vacant seat of Pierre Amine Gemayel, the former member of the government coalition who was assassinated in November 2006. The fact that Gemayel's seat was won by a member of the opposition has been interpreted as a negative popularity test for the ruling coalition.

Therefore, a core interest of the March 14 alliance is to consolidate its position in the government, and all the presidential candidates of the alliance, such as Democratic Renewal Movement leader Nassib Lahoud, Rally of Independent Maronite leader Butros Harb, or current Minister of Social Affairs Nayla Mouawad, would push forward an anti-Syrian platform, though by different degrees.

The opposition parties, on the other hand, perceive the importance of maintaining a "friendly" president necessary to balance the influence of the governing coalition, and they would thus oppose the election of an openly anti-Syrian candidate. Unlike the majority coalition, the opposition parties have decided to rally behind one nominee and to support the Christian leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, Michel Aoun.

Renewal of political violence
This polarized and chaotic scenario was further complicated by the recent renewal of violence and political assassinations. On September 19, only a week before the first round of presidential elections, a parliamentary member of the March 14 coalition and of the Maronite Phalange Party, Antoine Ghanem, was killed in a truck bombing. Ghanem was the eighth anti-Syrian politician to be killed since 2004, and the sixth victim of political assassinations of March 14 members since the February 2005 murder of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri.

The main objective of Ghanem's assassination was to further destabilize and polarize the Lebanese political arena, perhaps in an attempt to maintain the current political paralysis and impasse. Secondly, the killing has a very practical function: to hinder the March 14 coalition's numerical majority within the parliament, effectively preventing them from electing a candidate of their own choice. Both these objectives seem to further Syrian interests in reasserting influence over Lebanon, although the country openly denied any involvement in the political assassination.

The internal reactions to the killing of Ghanem varied, although all parties - including Hezbollah - expressed their condemnation. Current presidential candidate Boutros Harb commented that "this is an attack aimed at sabotaging all efforts to reach a solution to the current political crisis", and stated that the killing of Ghanem was tied to the upcoming elections. A much stronger reaction came from prominent majority leader Walid Jumblatt, who openly declared that he opposed any negotiation with "murderers", alluding to pro-Syrian opposition forces such as Hezbollah.

These types of statements from the majority coalition clearly indicate an escalation of the political debate, possibly hindering

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(24 hours to 11:59 pm ET, Oct 10, 2007)


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