No president for Lebanon as deadline looms

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BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanon's parliament failed to pick a new president Thursday during a session seen as a last-ditch effort to elect a new head of state two days before President Michel Suleiman's six-year term expires.

As in previous sessions over the past month, the vote could not be held as lawmakers allied with the Shiite militant group Hezbollah boycotted the voting for lack of agreement on a consensus president.

The move all but ensures a presidential vacuum in the tiny Arab nation as it struggles to deal with security issues and the fallout from the civil war in neighboring Syria.

"I believe that we are heading toward a vacuum in the president's post and there will be no elections. This is a negative message to the international community," legislator Khaled Daher told The Associated Press after the meeting.

A presidential vacuum is not expected to have immediate repercussions. Lebanon has a national unity government which will continue to administer the country. But it is a setback to the country's institutions and a blow to the Christian community in Lebanon.

Lebanon is the only Arab state which has a Christian head of state.

According to Lebanon's power-sharing system, the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the parliament speaker a Shiite Muslim.

Lebanon is deeply split along sectarian and ideological lines and divisions have worsened because of the civil war in Syria. The country of 4.5 million is also struggling to deal with the influx of over 1 million Syrian refugees.

Lebanon's elections are traditionally influenced by international and regional actors backing rival factions, and presidents are elected only after securing the necessary regional support and consensus among the political camps.

No such consensus has emerged yet. Thursday's meeting was the fifth attempt to hold a session to elect a new head of state.

As in previous sessions over the past month, lawmakers affiliated with a Hezbollah-led alliance stayed away. A two-thirds quorum of the legislature's 128 members is required for an electoral session. Some 73 lawmakers showed up on Thursday.

Hezbollah lawmakers have said lack of agreement would mean that no candidate would reach the required majority to win the election, making their attendance pointless.

Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri said parliament would keep its doors open until the expiry of Suleiman's term on midnight Saturday in case the feuding political factions reach a last-minute deal.

It wouldn't be the first time there is a presidential vacuum in Lebanon, a perpetually divided country of 4.5 million people, with 18 religious sects and a sectarian-based power-sharing system. The country went for months without a president before Suleiman, a former army commander, was elected in 2008.

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