Lebanon's parliament failed to convene due to an opposition boycott in its latest attempt yesterday to elect a successor to President Emile Lahoud just hours before he was set to leave office, putting the country in a potentially explosive political vacuum.
Speaker Nabih Berri said in a statement that the session was postponed for a week until Nov. 30 to give more time "for additional consultations to reach a consensus on electing a president."
The opposition-aligned Berri made the decision 30 minutes after the legislature failed to muster the necessary two-thirds quorum to begin voting. It followed consultations with leaders of the parliamentary majority.
Scheduling another session in a week as talks between the two sides continue will, in all likelihood, defuse -- for now -- any potential street confrontations.
While both sides said efforts were underway to prevent further deterioration, each camp was waiting for the other to make the first move. The failure to elect a new president could throw the country deeper into political chaos and violence.
In the absence of a president, the anti-Syrian government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora takes executive power under the constitution. But the pro-Syrian Lahoud has vowed not to hand his authorities over to Saniora's administration, considering it unconstitutional after all five ministers of the Shiite Muslim community quit a year ago.
"Any step taken by Fuad Saniora to take over the presidency's duties ... within hours the opposition will be on the streets to bring him down by force," warned opposition politician Wiam Wahhab on Hezbollah's al-Manar TV late on Thursday.
The most dangerous scenario is that Lahoud could create an alternative government and hand it his power. Saniora's Western-backed government would likely refuse to step aside, leaving Lebanon with two rival governments, much like during the last two years of the 1975-1990 civil war.
A compromise possibility is that Lahoud will entrust his security powers to the heads of the military, a move that the government would likely not oppose -- effectively putting the situation on hold to allow further talks on a candidate.
"We are giving wide space to the continuation of dialogue and consultations," said Akram Chehayeb of a hard-line faction in the parliament backing Saniora. "We want to preserve civil peace."
Others in the majority said they would not take any drastic measures such as electing one of their own in a simple majority ignoring the opposition boycott.
Walid Jumblatt, a prominent leader in the majority, said afterwards that he continues to hold out for consensus on a candidate, stressing that the priority was to prevent the political tensions from turning into violence.
"We will continue to work for consensus and national peace," he told reporters.
Ahead of yesterday's events, army commander General Michel Suleiman has ordered soldiers "not to be lenient or inactive" in confronting possible troublemakers, calling on his troops to ignore the politics and "listen to the call of duty."
The military has been on alert for several days. Yesterday morning, hundreds of troops in tanks, armored carriers and jeeps were deployed along intersections leading to the Lebanese capital and around the downtown area where the parliament building is located.