- The Washington Times - Monday, March 21, 2005

BEIRUT — A political standoff between the government and the anti-Syrian opposition is blocking parliamentary elections due this spring, prompting some politicians to worry the balloting may be delayed by up to a year.

Almost unnoticed amid the huge demonstrations that have filled Beirut since the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri is the fact that Lebanon remains without an effective government that can schedule the May elections or negotiate the terms of a Syrian withdrawal.

“We have concerns about the pro-Syrian government behavior. It seems there is an intent to delay or postpone the election to extend the parliament and its election for another year,” said Ghinwa Jalloul, a Beirut parliamentarian who supports the opposition.

Large demonstrations after the death of Mr. Hariri forced the resignation of pro-Syrian Prime Minister Omar Karami and his Cabinet. President Emile Lahoud, another Syrian ally, reappointed Mr. Karami on an interim basis, but the prime minister has been unable to form a government without the cooperation of opposition members of parliament, who refuse to meet with him at all.

Without a Cabinet, the caretaker government cannot under Lebanese law negotiate with foreign countries, like Syria, or establish the election law necessary to hold the balloting for the 128-seat parliament.

“The only way to face these difficulties, complications and rescue the country is a national unity government,” Mr. Karami was quoted as saying last week. “This is what we are seeking, and this is what we will do. If we can, then that is good, and if not, we will deal with it later.”

Asked whether he was optimistic, Mr. Karami said: “We have to continue our consultations to say whether we are optimistic or not.”

The opposition — a nontraditional alliance of Christians, Druze and Sunni Muslims — has set three conditions for cooperating with Mr. Karami. They want a transparent investigation into the Hariri killing, the resignations of top Lebanese security officials who failed to prevent or investigate the assassination, and the departure of Syrian military and intelligence personnel prior to any elections.

The last condition is on the way to being met. Although Syrian President Bashar Assad had said the final removal of his forces from Lebanon would have to be negotiated with the Beirut government, he has given a commitment to the United Nations that they will be out before the elections.

But Mr. Karami has not moved to reform the Lebanese security services, and the opposition has little confidence in the steps taken so far to find out who killed Mr. Hariri.

Lebanon’s election system is designed to give recognition to each of its 18 ethnic and religious groups, with top posts reserved for particular groups. By agreement, the president is Christian, the prime minister is a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament is a Shi’ite Muslim.

Ethnic and religious groups are also assured of a fixed percentage of the seats in parliament, creating a potential source of friction this year. Shi’ites, who make up 40 percent of the population and turned out in large numbers for two mass demonstrations sponsored by Hezbollah, are allocated only 28 of the 128 seats and could demand more.

It is unlikely the system will be reformed in any meaningful way before the May elections. In any case, a majority of Lebanese support the system, which protects the minority interests of Christians and Sunnis.

One veteran Hezbollah analyst said the militant group was on the defensive over the withdrawal of its Syrian allies and a U.N. resolution that calls for it to disarm, and he did not expect it to force the issue of representation this year.

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