BEIRUT, Lebanon – Lebanon's parliament on Tuesday put off a session to elect a new president until next month after the legislature failed to muster enough lawmakers because of an Hezbollah-led opposition boycott.
The announcement was made by a parliamentary official in the chamber after the bell rang three times to call the lawmakers into session. Lawmakers from the pro-government majority were in the chamber, but many opposition members stayed in the hallways.
The postponement to Oct. 23 effectively puts off the confrontation between Lebanon's rival factions for a month. It had been expected after the opposition, led by Syrian- and Iranian-backed Hezbollah, vowed to boycott the session to block the U.S.-supported majority from electing a president from their own ranks.
Mohammed Kabbani, a member of the anti-Syrian parliamentary majority, said there were more than 65 lawmakers, a simple majority, but less than 85 — the necessary two-thirds quorum — in attendance.
Instead of electing a president Tuesday, the gathering turned into a consultation. Opposition-aligned parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, met with Saad Hariri, the leader of the largest bloc.
Tuesday's gathering was under a heavy security dragnet by several thousand soldiers and policemen aimed at allowing anti-Syrian lawmakers to move safely from a nearby heavily guarded hotel where they had taken refuge fearing assassination.
Fears of another attack were high after the slaying Wednesday of pro-government lawmaker Antoine Ghanem. It fueled accusations by government supporters that Syria is targeting members of the ruling coalition, a claim denied by Damascus.
Lawmakers began arriving Tuesday in vehicles with tinted windows under heavy guard. Some members of the majority wore white and red scarves on their shoulders, a symbol of the 2005 campaign of protests that drove Syrian forces out of Lebanon in the wake of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
Even without the tensions, the attempt to choose a successor to President Emile Lahoud before he steps down on Nov. 24 has become a struggle between the anti-Syrian coalition, led by U.S.-backed Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, and the opposition, led by the Shiite Muslim militant group Hezbollah.
More than a dozen declared or undeclared candidates are vying for the post, three of them members of the pro-government camp and one from the opposition.
Telecommunications Minister Marwan Hamadeh, a leading member of the governing coalition, said the postponement was "to give an opportunity to efforts to reach consensus" on the divisive issue. All 68 legislators from the majority attended.
Hariri described his meeting with Berri as "positive," saying he will continue contacts to reach an agreement on the election of "a president for all the Lebanese."
But Cabinet Minister Ahmed Fatfat, a member of the majority coalition, warned that if no consensus is reached by Oct. 23, the anti-Syrian coalition will move to elect a president with a simple majority.
"We will not accept the presidency to be left vacant," he told The Associated Press shortly after leaving the parliament building.
Walid Jumblatt, a leading member of the majority, was more hardline: "I don't believe in dialogue with murderers," he told AP Television News referring to some in the opposition who are allied with Iran and Syria.
As expected, the opposition — with 57 members — denied the 128-member legislature a quorum by having lawmakers stay away from the building or in their offices. Two legislators have declared they were with neither side on the presidential issue.
"Of course, without agreement we will not guarantee a quorum. This is logical," said Hussein Haj Hassan, one of 14 lawmakers in Hezbollah's bloc.
Berri, after meeting Monday with Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, the spiritual head of the Maronite Catholic minority, expressed optimism a consensus would be reached. Under Lebanon's sectarian-based political system, the president must be a Maronite.
Government supporters accuse Syria of seeking to end the ruling coalition's small majority in parliament by killing off lawmakers. They warn of a "new war" by Syria to undermine Lebanon.
Syria has denied any involvement in the car bombing of Ghanem on a Beirut street or in seven previous assassinations since 2005, including that of Hariri.
At least 40 pro-government lawmakers have moved into the landmark Phoenicia Hotel, which is surrounded by concrete blocks and security forces. The downtown area around parliament was sealed off to unauthorized vehicles and restaurants were closed.
The ruling coalition has threatened to just elect a president from their ranks with a simple majority and end one of the last vestiges of Damascus' political control. Hezbollah and its allies have warned that they would not recognize a candidate elected in their absence and could elect a rival president.
If the parliament cannot elect a president by Nov. 24, Saniora and his Cabinet would automatically take on executive powers. Some in the opposition have threatened that this could lead them to back another government they are urging Lahoud to appoint before he leaves office.
That could result in two rival administrations, as occurred in the last two years of Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war, when army units loyal to two governments fought it out.