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Tue 11 Dec 2007 03:46 PM

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Lebanon presidential vote delayed for eighth time

Session of parliament postponed amid tug-of-war between politicians.

A session of parliament on Tuesday to elect the army chief as Lebanon's president was postponed for the eighth time amid a tug-of-war between politicians and fears a vote could be delayed until March.

Parliament speaker Nabih Berri said in a statement issued shortly before midnight that the session would be postponed until December 17 "to allow for more consultations to agree on the election".

Berri, a prominent leader in the opposition, which is backed by Syria and Iran, made the announcement just minutes after the Western-backed majority said it would boycott Tuesday's session.

"The parliamentary session... must be devoted to amending the constitution to elect a president for the country," the majority said.

"In the absence of this, the deputies of the March 14 majority will not go to parliament to express their rejection of any attempt to violate the constitution," it said.

Lebanon has been without a president since incumbent Emile Lahoud ended his term on November 23, in the worst domestic crisis since the end of Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war.

The ruling coalition and the opposition have agreed to give the post to army chief General Michel Sleiman, but they are bickering over how to amend the constitution to allow for his election and over the shape of a new cabinet.

Article 49 stipulates that an acting senior public servant can not be president unless 10 MPs petition parliament for its amendment, which would then have to be approved by two-thirds of parliament and endorsed by the government.

But the opposition considers the government of prime minister Fuad Siniora illegitimate and pulled six of its ministers from the cabinet in November last year, demanding a more representative line-up.

"This week will be a grave period. I don't think there will be a president before the holidays," MP Mustafa Alloush from the ruling coalition bloc of Saad Hariri told newswire AFP.

A new vote could be pushed to March, when parliament returns from recess, and by then the majority might reconsider Sleiman as a potential candidate for the presidency, he added.

"Between now and March, parliament cannot amend the constitution unless an emergency session is held, but a request must be made by the president of the republic.

"Since there is no president, and since the government is not recognised by the opposition and the speaker, there won't be an emergency session and we will have to wait until March when the ordinary session begins," Alloush said.

Alloush blamed the deadlock on the opposition, "particularly [Christian leader] Michel Aoun," a presidential hopeful whom he said still eyes the presidency. "Aoun considers that the presidency should be his."

Aoun's adviser Simon Abi Ramia was also skeptical that a vote would take place next week.

"We are still at square one because the majority has refused to make concessions and meet the legitimate demands of the opposition," he said. "The problem is political."

The opposition wants an overall political understanding to precede any presidential election, including agreement on the shape and leadership of the next government, to ensure they are well-represented.

But the majority says that political matters should be discussed within national institutions such as parliament and the government after a president is elected.

Aoun had suggested in a news conference Monday that the presidential vote would be held next year.

"Don't be afraid of the void... have a pleasant time during the [end of year] holidays, and we will see you afterwards," he said.