Lebanon President Impasse Reflects Spillover From Syria War

The power struggle in the Middle East between groups backed by Saudi Arabia and Iran risks causing another political impasse in Lebanon, which has been rocked by a spate of car bombs over the past six months.

Lawmakers in the Beirut parliament today failed for the second time to elect a successor to President Michel Suleiman at a meeting because of a lack of the required two-thirds quorum, underscoring the difficulty of finding a consensus candidate during the turmoil in the region.

The second round will be held on May 7, according to the official National News Agency. Lawmakers from both sides, including Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil, had said they didn’t expect an agreement today.

Divisions have sharpened between factions at opposite ends of the Syria war. The opposition March 14 group, supported by the Saudis, is led by the son of assassinated Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and is opposed to the Syrian leadership of Bashar al-Assad. The March 8 alliance, which includes Iranian-backed Hezbollah, takes its name from the date of a pro-Syrian demonstration in Beirut nine years ago.

Lebanon is reeling from the spillover from neighboring Syria’s three-year war, which also has triggered a breakdown in security and deterioration in the economy.

Rapid Resolution

The World Bank’s Lebanon Economic Monitor published this week said growth in 2013 was 0.9 percent, the worst performance since 1999. Growth this year is projected at 1.5 percent “under the assumption that political uncertainty is rapidly resolved and that the security situation improves slightly,” it said.

Lebanon has more than 1 million refugees and has been shaken by a spate of bomb attacks, mostly in areas controlled by Hezbollah. The frequency of the bombings decreased after the group joined forces with the Syrian army to seize the last major settlement held by the rebels near the Lebanese border, and with the formation of a cabinet after almost 11 months.

“Despite some progress on the political front, spillovers from the Syrian conflict, outstanding political uncertainty and the volatile security environment pose significant challenges,” the World Bank report said.

Finance Minister Khalil told reporters yesterday a new president will be positive for the economy and “renew the trust of the people and institutions in our country.”

National Unity

The accord that brokered the end of Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war divided political powers among the country’s three main religious groups. Under the sectarian system, the president has to be Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the parliament speaker a Shiite.

The president is a symbol of national unity and though policy is handled predominantly by the council of ministers, a smooth election can create positive sentiment among investors, Paul Salem, vice president of the Washington-based Middle East Institute, said in an interview.

“The election of a president is a very important part of reestablishing and reinforcing political and economic stability and institutional life,” said Salem.

Lebanon’s president is elected by parliament. A candidate needs a two-thirds majority of the 128 lawmakers in the first round to win and a simple majority in subsequent rounds.

Army Candidate

In the first session, held on April 23, March 14 candidate Samir Geagea, who heads the Lebanese Forces party, won 48 votes, followed by 16 for Henri Helu, a lawmaker who was nominated by Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. March 8 has not fielded a candidate, though some in the group have promoted Hezbollah ally Michel Aoun, leader of the Free Patriotic Movement.

Bassem al-Shabb, a March 14 lawmaker, said he doesn’t “expect the session to produce a president,” though one could be elected by May 25, when Suleiman’s six-year term ends. If the stalemate continues, then Army Commander Jean Kahwaji might become the consensus candidate, he said.

“He is the one who is most suitable because the army has done a good job vis-a-vis counter terrorism in Lebanon and he is one of the few people who has good relationships with Saudi Arabia and Iran,” Shabb said.

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