BEIRUT (AFP) — Lebanon enters a decisive week as President Emile Lahoud's term is set to expire with political leaders still unable to agree on his successor despite intense international pressure.
As foreign dignitaries converged on Beirut ahead of a planned vote in parliament on Wednesday, many fear the pro-Western ruling coalition and the Syrian-backed opposition may miss a final November 23 deadline to elect a new president, plunging the country into chaos.
There is also concern that the dispute could lead to two rival governments, echoing the dark final years of Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war when two competing administrations battled for control.
"We need a miracle because the political leaders are so far apart, it is hard to imagine that they would agree on something," said Ousama Safa, head of the Lebanese Centre for Policy Studies.
"But even if they elect a new president, the paralysis will continue because there will still be the issue of the make-up of the new government," he said.
The crisis has three times forced the postponement of a parliament session to elect a successor to pro-Syrian Lahoud, and there are fears that the last-ditch vote on November 21 could meet the same fate.
The deadlock has prompted foreign dignitaries, including UN chief Ban Ki-moon and the foreign ministers of France and Italy, to visit Lebanon in recent weeks for talks with Lebanon's feuding leaders.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said Sunday he was "less confident" about reaching a solution to the crisis as he returned to the country for his sixth visit in as many months.
"There is a new situation, I am less confident now. It's more complicated," said Kouchner, adding that there was "a split in the Christian camp".
Arab League chief Amr Mussa was also due in the Lebanese capital having received "positive signs" from parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri and parliament speaker and opposition leader Nabih Berri, a League official said in Cairo.
Maronite cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, who heads Lebanon's largest Christian community from which the president is chosen, injected fresh momentum into the search for a solution on Friday, when he drew up a list of candidates which was discussed Saturday by Hariri and Berri.
"The atmosphere was positive and allowed the strengthening of the chance of achieving a consensus," said a statement from Hariri's office.
MP Ali Hassan Khalil from Berri's Amal movement told AFP that the pair were continuing to work together to find a consensus candidate. "Berri is committed to reaching an agreement."
The names on the list have not been revealed, but Beirut newspapers said they included politicians from both feuding camps, in addition to independent technocrats.
Safa said Lebanon will continue to suffer instability as regional tensions were expected to continue over the next year, "so a technocrat may be elected president because he would not scare or threaten anyone."
"It will be a president for crisis management," he said.
A two-thirds majority is required for a candidate to be elected by parliament in a first round of voting. In the event of a second round, an absolute majority suffices.
The parliamentary majority, with 68 MPs in the 127-seat house, has threatened to go ahead on its own with a presidential vote if no consensus candidate is found.
Lahoud himself has threatened to appoint an interim military government if no agreement is struck, raising fears of civil conflict in the multi-confessional country.
"If a new president is elected by a simple majority, (the opposition) may take to the streets, grab some ministries," Safa said.
"But this is a very costly option for everybody. There will not be civil war because it is not in anyone's interest, but there may be clashes and incidents here and there that would keep the country in instability," he said.
Lebanon has been mired in political crisis, with pro- and anti-Syrian camps engaged in a power struggle since the 2005 assassination of Saad Hariri's father, former billionaire prime minister Rafiq Hariri.
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