Lebanon near despair over quest for new president

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BEIRUT, Nov 22 (Reuters) Lebanon marked its independence day today gripped by anxiety about the failure so far of rival political camps and a slew of foreign mediators to clinch agreement on a new president and avert possible violence.

''Last day before zero hour: either a miracle or vacuum,'' headlined the An-Nahar daily, which backs the anti-Syrian ruling coalition headed by Sunni Muslim leader Saad al-Hariri.

Other newspapers were just as bleak about the prospects of finding a solution ahead of a parliamentary vote tomorrow, the last day of pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud's term.

The election, first slated for September 25, has already been put off four times. If the assembly again fails to meet, a constitutional abyss would yawn before Lebanon, already mired in its worst political crisis since the 1975-90 civil war.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who has shuttled between fractious Lebanese politicians since Sunday, and his Spanish counterpart Miguel Angel Moratinos visited Christian opposition leader and presidential candidate Michel Aoun.

They were due to see other politicians from the pro-Syrian opposition and the Western-backed majority later in the day.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy telephoned Aoun and Hariri last night in another sign of international concern about a deadlock that could further destabilise Lebanon.

Troops and police tightened security in Beirut ahead of the parliamentary session. There was no military parade or other events to mark the 64th anniversary of Lebanon's independence.

''We will still wait for a president, regardless of our objections to the principle and the method (of selection), because we don't want to despair of the nation and the state that is about to become a memory,'' the pro-opposition As-safir newspaper wrote in an editorial.

The opposition has said it will not go to parliament unless there is agreement on a single candidate, who must be a Maronite Christian according to Lebanon's sectarian power-sharing system.

The ruling coalition holds only a slim majority and the opposition says the vote requires two-thirds of the MPs.

If no president is elected, the outgoing Lahoud has vowed to take unspecified measures to guarantee Lebanon's unity. These could include handing power to the army, rather than to the existing government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

Lahoud and the opposition say Siniora's government lost its legitimacy when all its Shi'ite ministers resigned last year.

The majority bloc says Siniora's government would automatically take over presidential powers until a new head of state can be elected. Some of its members favour using their majority to pick a president in the absence of a consensus.

REUTERS PD KP1640

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