Beirut, Lebanon - Lebanon's parliament has failed to elect a new president, in what is set to be a prolonged saga closely linked to Syria's upcoming election in June, political analysts say.
The parliamentary session began at noon on Wednesday. No candidate succeeded in getting the minimum 86 votes, or a two-thirds majority, needed to win the presidency.
All the MPs filed out after the ballots were counted, preventing a quorum for a second round of voting. According to the Lebanese constitution, a candidate needs only 51 per cent of votes in the second round to win the presidency. The next session to elect a president will be held on April 30.
The election was the first opportunity to produce a president without the influence of Syrian authorities, since Syria ended its nearly 30-year military presence in Lebanon in 2005.
But Wednesday's vote was not a significant milestone, as suggested by Mario Abou Zeid, an analyst at the Carnegie Middle East Center, a policy research institute in downtown Beirut.
"The Lebanese presidential election will be strictly tied to the Syrian presidential election, taking into account the current dynamics regarding the Syrian conflict," Abou Zeid said. "Any future president of Lebanon should have good ties with Syria."
The current presidency of Michel Suleiman ends on May 25. Although members of parliament are legally mandated to elect a new head of state before this date, the post may remain vacant for weeks or months. When President Emile Lahoud's term ended in November 2007, the cabinet collectively adopted his responsibilities until Suleiman assumed office in May 2008.
The Lebanese presidential election will be strictly tied to the Syrian presidential election, taking into account the current dynamics regarding the Syrian conflict.
For a president to be elected, Lebanon's constitution dictates that the 128-member parliament must have a two-thirds quorum.
Christians and Muslims have equal representation in parliament, and a power-sharing agreement dictates that the president must be a Maronite Christian.
To date, the Lebanese Forces Party has nominated its leader Samir Geagea for president. A former warlord, Geagea was sentenced to death for being behind the 1987 killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rashid Karami, but had his sentence reduced to life in prison. In 2005, as a part of a wider national reconciliation bid, he was pardoned and released. During Wednesday's first round of voting, Geagea received 48 votes, well short of the 86 required.
The National Struggle Front, headed by Walid Jumblatt, had nominated MP Henry Helou, who trailed in second place with 16 votes. Fifty-two MPs abstained, seven votes were declared void, and one vote was cast for former President Amin Gemayel.
Since there is no formal process to declare someone a candidate, the ballot is essentially an open field. MPs can write down anyone's name, or even submit blank ballots. New candidates may also come forward between the first and second voting rounds.
"Things could develop fairly quickly [today] to either bring certain names to the fore or distance certain names from running, and that needs to be closely watched," said Habib Malik, associate professor of history at the Lebanese American University.
Lebanese resistance group Hezbollah is a key player in deciding who gets elected as president. "It's not in their best interest at all to have a kind of president that might go against... their intervention in the Syrian conflict," Abou Zeid said.
The leading potential candidates don't fulfil the essential quality of being an undeclared arbiter and a moderating force between the polarised parliamentary blocs, Malik said.
"Most likely, in traditional Lebanese fashion, a non-descript figure will emerge and will be touted as a reconciliatory, unifying figure," said Malik, citing Jean Obeid as an example. Obeid is a former MP and foreign minister known as a moderate politician with positive ties to both Syria and Saudi Arabia.
So far, media reports have heralded General Michel Aoun as the strongest contender for president, but Aoun has yet to declare his intention to run for the post.
According to both Malik and Abou Zeid, whomever takes up the presidential position would need the informal backing of major regional and international players, including the United States, Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia.