Lebanon presidential vote delayed, vacuum looms

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BEIRUT, Nov 23 (Reuters) Lebanon's parliament failed today to grasp its last chance to elect a head of state before pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud leaves office at midnight, opening a vacuum that many fear could lead to violence.

Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri, a Shi'ite opposition leader, delayed the election for a fifth time because rival factions were deadlocked. He set a new session for Nov. 30.

''To allow for more consultations to arrive at the election of a president...the session is postponed to Friday, Nov 30,'' Berri said in a statement read on his behalf.

The delay means the presidency, always held by a Maronite Christian under Lebanon's sectarian power-sharing system, will be vacant for at least a week. Unless a consensus candidate emerges soon, the country could end up saddled with competing administrations as at the end of its 1975-1990 civil war.

Concern about the political impasse and possible instability pushed the Beirut stock exchange index down four per cent.

Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's Western-backed cabinet will assume presidential powers until a new head of state is elected, even though the opposition challenges its legitimacy.

Nevertheless, leaders of both sides stressed their commitment to stability and civic peace.

The United States and its local allies blame Syria for the deadlock. Hezbollah and its Christian partners say the majority bloc wants to keep them from their rightful share of power. They accuse Washington of seeking to control Lebanon.

More than 100 lawmakers from both camps went to parliament in downtown Beirut, but opposition MPs did not enter the assembly chamber in line with a boycott declared a day earlier.

Before announcing the delay, Berri held separate meetings with majority leaders Saad al-Hariri and Walid Jumblatt, a sign that the rival camps have not yet burned all their bridges.

''We are for consensus and we will remain for consensus,'' Hariri said. ''We want to elect a president for six years.'' He was implicitly rejecting a proposal by opposition Christian leader Michel Aoun for an interim president to serve only until the next parliamentary election in 2009.

Lahoud, a former army chief, has served nine years as president. His six-year term was extended for three years in 2004 at the behest of Syria, then the dominant power in Lebanon.

Anti-Syrian factions proved unable to remove him, even after Damascus withdrew its troops in 2005 amid an outcry over the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.

FAILED MEDIATION French-led mediation efforts failed to resolve a dispute over the presidency which reflects a regional struggle pitting Washington against Syria and Iran, both allies of Hezbollah.

Lebanon's prolonged political crisis has created despondency among its four million people and spurred emigration.

''I am from the generation which lived through the civil war, which destroyed our dreams,'' said Charbel Faris, a 55-year-old artist, urging the politicians to end the crisis. ''Enough, we've had enough of dancing on the blade of a sword.'' Security forces deployed across Beirut, especially around parliament and a luxury hotel where dozens of anti-Syrian MPs have stayed for two months in fear of assassination.

Lebanon has been rattled by some 30 politically motivated attacks over the last three years that have killed dozens, including eight anti-Syrian politicians and journalists.

The army has warned against any internal strife. Both sides have accused each other of arming their supporters.

Lahoud disputes the Siniora government's legitimacy and has said he will act before leaving office, without giving details.

He could entrust the country's security to the army or take more drastic options that the government would reject.

Some majority MPs favour using their slim edge in parliament to elect a president if the quest for consensus fails.

''We are the majority in parliament and it is the right of the majority to practise its constitutional right,'' said George Adwan, a deputy for the Christian Lebanese Forces party.

REUTERS RC RN1908

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