Vote on Lebanon president faces further delay

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BEIRUT, Nov 20 (Reuters) Lebanon's rival political camps remained at loggerheads today over who should replace its pro-Syrian president, who has only four days left in office.

Failure to agree on a successor would deepen a year-long political crisis and could result in two governments -- one opposed to Syrian influence and the other backed by Damascus.

Politicians from both sides have predicted tomorrow's parliamentary vote will be postponed, probably until Friday, the last day of President Emile Lahoud's term.

Hezbollah, an ally of Syria, warned of a ''catastrophic picture'' in Lebanon without a deal between the opposition which it leads and the Western-backed governing coalition.

''Who then rules the country?'' asked Mohammed Raad, leader of Hezbollah's parliamentary bloc. ''Constitutional life would be gone with the wind,'' he told the group's al-Manar TV yesterday.

Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, a key opposition figure, and majority leader Saad al-Hariri have failed to agree on any of the names for president proposed by the head of the Maronite church. Hariri left for a trip to Moscow early today.

The head of state must be a Maronite according to the Lebanon's sectarian power-sharing system. Political sources say the governing coalition wants MP Robert Ghanem for the post while the opposition supports former minister Michel Edde.

Complicating the picture is Michel Aoun -- leader of the largest Christian bloc in parliament and a Hezbollah ally who wants the job for himself.

France, which backs the governing coalition, said yesterday its efforts to mediate a deal on a consensus candidate were being thwarted. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner threatened to name the spoiler.

Agreement on the presidency is needed to guarantee a two-thirds quorum for the vote in parliament, where the governing coalition holds an absolute majority of three.

Some members of the ruling coalition say it may call its lawmakers to elect a president if there is no deal. The opposition has said such a move would be unconstitutional.

''The opposition has serious options to confront the unconstitutional steps which the loyalists will take,'' Hezbollah's Raad said. He did not say what they were.

Raad said Lahoud would not stay in office if there was no deal. Like the opposition, Lahoud has fiercely disputed the legitimacy of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's cabinet since all of its Shi'ite Muslim ministers quit more than a year ago.

The president has previously suggested he could hand his powers to army chief Michel Suleiman -- a step that the anti-Syrian majority faction would reject as unconstitutional.


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