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Page last updated at 11:16 GMT, Monday, 24 September 2007 12:16 UK

Analysis: Lebanese vote in balance

By Martin Patience
BBC News, Beirut

Coffins being carried through crowds
The vote follows the recent assassination of a anti-Syrian MP

The process to elect a new Lebanese president started on Tuesday - and was immediately postponed. Speaker Nabih Berri adjourned the session until 23 October because there were not enough MPs to make the two-thirds quorum, after members of the opposition pro-Syrian bloc stayed away.

In the opening stages of the vote, a successful candidate, who by political consensus must be a Maronite Christian, has to get a two-thirds majority.

The presidency will decide the future of Lebanon for several years to comeż It's incredibly important that we get a new president who is recognised as legitimate by both sides
Osama Safa, Lebanese Centre for Policy Studies

This election strikes at the heart of the political deadlock in the country.

The root of the current paralysis is the assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005.

Syria, which had maintained a military presence in the country for almost 30 years, was forced to withdraw its troops after a domestic and international outcry over the killing.

Until that point, Syria had enjoyed enormous political influence over its small neighbour.

But Damascus was widely blamed for the killing, an accusation it strongly denies.

Pro- and anti-Syrian

Since then, Lebanon's politicians have broken into two camps - pro- and anti-Syria coalitions.

The current government, led by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, is from the anti-Syria coalition which has wide support among Western powers, particularly the US and France.

LEADING CANDIDATES
Nassib Lahoud: Government candidate. Former US ambassador. Leading industrialist
Michel Aoun: Opposition candidate. Former army commander who fought Syria during civil war. Returned from exile in 2005. Vocal opponent of government
Michel Suleiman: Army commander since 1998. Electing him requires constitutional amendment
Riad Salameh: Central bank governor since 1993. Widely respected at home and abroad. Election requires constitutional amendment
Boutrous Harb: Pro-government candidate. MP and former minister
Jean Obeid: Possible consensus candidate. Foreign minister 2003-2004

But it has a dwindling majority in parliament after the assassination of four of the coalition's MPs.

The latest killing was of anti-Syrian MP Antoine Ghanim, in a car bomb last week. Again, Syria is accused, something it denies strongly.

On the other side of the political divide, is the pro-Syrian coalition led by the Islamic movement Hezbollah with support from the Christian leader Michel Aoun.

This group insists that the fortunes of Lebanon are deeply intertwined with Damascus and that the two countries most strive to work more closely together.

It accuses the current government of being beholden to the regional interests of the US.

The factions represent two contesting visions of Lebanon's future - one pro-Western, the other having a strong Islamist element and focusing on the conflict with Israel.

Many see this contest as proxy war between the United States and Iran.

No consensus

It is in this poisonous - and deadly - atmosphere that the country's politicians are gearing up to elect a new president.

"The presidency will decide the future of Lebanon for several years to come," says Osama Safa, general director of the Lebanese Centre for Policy Studies, based in Beirut.

LEBANESE ASSASSINATIONS
A car set alight by the explosion in Beirut (19 September 2007)
Feb 2005: Ex-PM Rafik Hariri
April 2005: MP Bassel Fleihan
June 2005: Anti-Syria journalist Samir Kassir
June 2005: Ex-Communist leader George Hawi
Dec 2005: Anti-Syria MP Gebran Tueni
Nov 2006: Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel
June 2007: Anti-Syria MP Walid Eido
Sep 2007: Anti-Syria MP Antoine Ghanim

"It's incredibly important that we get a new president who is recognised as legitimate by both sides."

The incumbent, Emile Lahoud, is from the pro-Syria camp and needs to step down in November.

But no consensus candidate has emerged and talks between the two factions have been put off because of the recent violence.

Constitutional argument

Political analysts say that in order for the presidency to have legitimacy the two sides must first agree on electoral formula that is acceptable to both.

Neither side could garner a two-thirds majority required to elect a president on the first ballot.

The anti-Syrian coalition is pushing for a simple majority vote, something the opposition is strongly opposed to.

Due to the threat of more killings, the anti-Syrian coalition wants the issue to be resolved as soon as possible, so their majority is not reduced any further.

For now, the country's immediate political future is uncertain, and the presidential vote does not appear to be offering up a way out of this uncertainty.

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