BEIRUT (Reuters)–France’s foreign minister on Tuesday cited progress in efforts to nudge feuding Lebanese leaders toward agreeing on a new president, and warned the country would face a "very difficult period" without a deal.
Parliament is due to elect a new president next week to replace pro-Syrian Emile Lahoud, but the political standoff has already delayed the vote three times. The November 21 vote is now critical because Lahoud’s term ends on November 23 and there are fears of political chaos if a successor is not chosen in time.
The deadlock is part of a year-old crisis–the worst since the 1975-1990 civil war–which pits the Western-backed government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora against the pro-Syrian, Hezbollah-led opposition.
Ending a day of talks with Lebanese leaders, Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said Maronite Christian Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir would draw up a list of presidential candidates from which the rival camps would chose a consensus figure.
The president has to be a Maronite according to Lebanon’s sectarian power-sharing system. Kouchner did not give any names. Many Maronites have been suggested as possible consensus candidates for the post.
Speaking through an Arabic interpreter, Kouchner said the list would be presented soon, perhaps in the next day or two, to Saad al-Hariri, leader of the parliamentary majority, and Nabih Berri, the chamber’s speaker and a leading opposition figure.
Sfeir had recently refused to draw up such a list.
Kouchner said it seemed "there would be an election on time" but cautioned "that the worst could also happen."
"This process may fail and then a very difficult period will begin."
Observers fear that failure to reach a deal over the presidency could lead to the formation of a second government in opposition to Siniora’s and trigger violence.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is due to visit Lebanon "very soon," U.N. spokeswoman Marie Okabe said in New York. Lebanese political sources said he would go there on Thursday to urge politicians to hold the election on time.
Kouchner said he would return next week.
France, Lebanon’s former colonial power, has been at the forefront of a mediation drive to resolve the issue.
Lebanese political sources said the intensified French initiative had been coordinated between U.S. President George W. Bush and French President Nicolas Sarkozy at a meeting in Washington last week.
There are fears Lebanese parties could take unilateral action and tip the country into chaos if no president is elected by the November 23 deadline.
Leading members of the anti-Syrian governing coalition have said their MPs, who have a slim parliamentary majority, have the right to gather in Lahoud’s final 10 days in power to elect a president without the usual two-thirds quorum.
Hezbollah has said this would be tantamount to a coup. The group’s leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, called on Lahoud to take action if rival leaders are unable to agree on a consensus president. He appeared to be backing a suggestion that Lahoud form a parallel government.
Bush, in a call to Siniora on Monday, urged Lebanon to hold the election in line with its constitution and without allowing Syrian interference.