Lebanon's anti-Syrian Parliament set to re-elect pro-Damascus speaker
BEIRUT: Lebanon's newly elected anti-Syrian Parliament is set to re-elect leading pro-Damascus politician Nabih Berri as its speaker when Parliament convenes for the first time since the election on Tuesday. Saad Hariri's Future Movement bloc, the single largest opposition grouping in Parliament last night declared its intention to vote for Berri virtually guaranteeing his re-election.
The appointment of a new speaker was seen as the first important test of the new Parliament's commitment to reform.
Many people believe Berri is too closely associated with the former pro-Syrian regime and should be replaced.
His re-election means that along with the continuation of President Emile Lahoud's as head of state, two of the three main offices of state in Lebanon will remain in the hands of two men who were strong supporters of Syria's role in Lebanon.
Reading from a statement following a meeting of the Future Movement Akkar MP Mustafa Hashem said the bloc had certain priorities, including the release of Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, full implementation of the Taif Accord and working on a new electoral law.
He said: "In line with this, we have decided to vote for Berri after he declared his commitment to our bloc's priorities."
Hashem added the bloc will also vote for Koura MP Farid Mekari as deputy speaker.
The Lebanese Forces, which formed part of the united opposition during the elections, is also likely to vote for Berri because of his recent commitment to freeing Geagea.
Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, another key opposition figure, had already said he would vote for Berri. He is also supported by Hizbullah, which in alliance with Berri's Amal Movement has 35 seats in Parliament.
Hizbullah's Nabatieh MP Mohammed Raad said: "Berri will be re-elected as speaker on Tuesday. This is our choice, a choice that will protect the resistance."
The other main parliamentary bloc, Michel Aoun's Free
Patriotic Movement, has not yet decided on whether it will take part in the vote. Aoun is expected to make an announcement on the issue later today.
A small group of MPs will oppose the move, headed by Christian opposition Qornet Shehwan Gathering members.
As support for Berri increased, his main rival for the job, independent MP Hussein Husseini, withdrew his candidacy.
In a statement issued yesterday Husseini asked MPs to spoil their ballots when voting.
He said: "The Lebanese people know the Lebanese will is not prevailing in this matter, and so, I call all my fellow MPs to cast a Blank paper in the ballot."
Meanwhile, Hariri visited Geagea in his jail on Saturday, in a step that further enhances his alliance with LF.
The LF entered Parliament for the first time headed by Geagea's wife Strida.
Hariri assured Geagea that he would make certain the new Parliament would make it a priority to pass a bill of parole that would ensure his unconditional release after more than 11 years in the Defense Ministry jail in Yarze.
Sources close to Hariri, who does not intend to become prime minister in the new government, said he has nominated two Future Movement colleagues for the post, former Finance Minister Fouad Siniora and former Justice Minister Bahij Tabbara.
Meanwhile Aoun, who fought an often bitter election campaign against Hariri and heads one of Parliament's largest blocs with 21 MPs, said he would cooperate with Hariri and join a national unity government if it committed to a clear program of reform.
In an interview with a Kuwaiti newspaper, Aoun said: "I admire this young man. But there are advisors in his entourage who dislike me."
He added: "But he has expressed willingness to cooperate, which means the advisors pose no problem any longer. We are also ready to cooperate."