By Tom Perry
BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Saad al-Hariri has taken a holiday to "think and reflect" after a once close ally quit his anti-Syria coalition in a move expected to delay the formation of a new government.
Druze leader Walid Jumblatt's departure from Hariri's "March 14" alliance this week has redrawn Lebanon's political map and undermined the coalition's June parliamentary election victory over rivals including the powerful Iran-backed Hezbollah group.
Hariri, a Saudi- and U.S.-backed billionaire businessman, had been expected to conclude talks this week on the formation of a coalition government grouping his alliance with parties allied to Syria, including Hezbollah and the Amal movement.
But he left the country Monday night for a holiday, his media office said. The trip aimed to give Hariri a chance to "think and reflect calmly," according to a statement released after a meeting of MPs from his Future Movement.
Hariri wanted to "take some real distance from the heat of the debate over the political make-up of March 14 and likewise the consultations over the government formation," it said.
Hariri, 39, had reached agreement last week on the division of cabinet seats, splitting the portfolios between his alliance, the rival "March 8" alliance and a group of ministers to be named by President Michel Suleiman.
But Jumblatt has said the three ministers he is expected to be allocated in the 30-seat cabinet will be aligned with neither March 14 or March 8, the coalitions whose rivalry has defined Lebanese politics since the 2005 assassination of Hariri's father, former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri.
He told Lebanese television station MTV that he would ally himself with Suleiman, who was elected president last year as a consensus candidate.
The change in his position is seen linked to an end to Syria's isolation by many Western governments and rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Syria, whose rivalry has been seen at the heart of Lebanon's turmoil since the Hariri killing.
Jumblatt's announcement has dealt a major blow to March 14, which won a parliamentary majority in a legislative election two months ago. Without his bloc of 11 MPs, March 14 no longer has an absolute majority in the 128-seat parliament.
Nabih Berri, parliament speaker and one of Syria's closest allies in Lebanon, told as-Safir newspaper he feared a delay in the government formation. "It is very necessary that contacts be accelerated," he said.
The Beirut stock exchange fell for a second day in response to the political outlook. The BLOM index fell 2.8 percent, dragged down by real estate firm Solidere. Its shares dipped more than 6 percent.
Jumblatt had been one of the most hawkish figures in the March 14 alliance, which coalesced after the Hariri killing with an agenda focused on ending Syrian influence in Lebanon.
(Editing by Samia Nakhoul)
BEIRUT: Efforts to form the next national-unity cabinet stalled when Premier-designate Saad Hariri left Lebanon to France on Tuesday, two days after the withdrawal of Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) head Walid Jumblatt from the March 14 coalition. Jumblatt’s withdrawal from March 14 on Sunday raised questions about the cabinet’s allotment of shares among the two dominant coalitions given his new independent position, as well as his announced alignment with President Michel Sleiman when it comes to voting on key decisions in the government.
On Tuesday, Jumblatt held talks with Saudi Information and Culture Minister Abdel-Aziz Khoja in Beirut. No statement was issued after the talks.
Hariri’s Future Movement parliamentary bloc, “Lebanon Firstsaid on Tuesday the bloc would maintain their slogan and name, which “does not conflict with the country’s Arab identity,” a reference to calls by Jumblatt for Lebanese parties to revert to Arabism.
Caretaker Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, who headed the meeting, said Hariri’s trip would give him the opportunity “to think away from the ongoing current political rhetoric.”
“Hariri wanted to distance himself from the heated rhetoric regarding the cabinet’s formation and the political make-up of the March 14 coalition,” Siniora told reporters.
In a statement issued following the meeting, the bloc stressed that Lebanon presented a “civilized model of multicultural coexistence and Arabism to its Arab neighbors.”
“The ‘Lebanon First’ slogan does not contradict the country’s unquestionable Arab identity which was never subject to discussion,” the statement said.
The bloc members underscored the people’s choice for a Lebanese state, “which constitutes an inseparable part of the Arab nation.”
The statement also criticized the “inaccurate interpretations” of the bloc’s slogan by certain groups.
Last month, Jumblatt criticized the “Lebanon First” slogan saying it suggested “Lebanon’s isolation from the Arab world.”
Moreover, on Sunday, the PSP leader said his alliance with March 14 “was driven by necessity and must not continue.”
Yet, Jumblatt said on Monday he would not join the opposition but rather announced that his party would align itself with President Michel Sleiman in the next cabinet.
When asked about Jumblatt’s stance on the cabinet’s formation process, PSP spokesman Rami Rayess told The Daily Star on Tuesday that both the March 14 and the opposition “had implicitly agreed to refrain from putting key issue to vote in the upcoming cabinet prior to a consensus between political parties.”
Rayess said Jumblatt left to the Democratic Gathering bloc MPs, who were not members of the PSP, the freedom when it comes to their political stances and decision whether to remain part of the March 14 alliance. Rayess added that the March 14 Forces would retain their majority, adding that Jumblatt’s latest statements aimed to end the “acute political schism between both coalitions.”
We would neither be enemies with the March 14 nor we will plead the opposition,” Rayess said.
Meanwhile, sources close to Speaker Nabih Berri said on Tuesday that the cabinet’s 15-10-5 formula agreed upon between opposition groups and the March 14 coalition prior to Jumblatt’s departure from the parliamentary majority remained valid.
The formula granted the majority 15 ministers, the opposition 10 and the president five. Such formula gives Sleiman the tipping vote; also neither March 14 nor the minority would be granted an absolute majority, or veto power.
Berri’s ally, Hizbullah’s second in command, Sheikh Naim Qassem, said on Tuesday Jumblatt’s recent stances were positive and didn’t influence the cabinet’s formation process.
Meanwhile, the Central News Agency reported on Tuesday that the speaker is expected to tackle during his weekly meeting with Sleiman on Wednesday, Jumblatt’s recent stances.
It added that Berri’s talks with Sleiman would follow the president’s meeting with PSP MP Wael Abou Faour on Monday.
In other news, the Lebanese Forces (LF) party denied on Tuesday a report that LF boss Samir Geagea “attacked” Jumblatt when he accused him of “presenting his credential letters to Syria and Iran.”
In a statement issued on Tuesday, the LF press office urged As-Safir newspaper, which carried the report, to refrain from “fabricating news and twisting facts which could instigate division and strife.”
The statement added that the LF leader’s speech was taken out of its context.
As-Safir newspaper quoted Geagea on Tuesday as telling LF officials that “Jumblatt abandoned the March 14 Forces and presented his letter of credentials to Syria and Iran.”
The paper also described Geagea’s reaction to Jumblatt’s decision as “one of the harshest on the political scene.”
On Tuesday, Jumblatt denied reports circulated in the media that he was planning a visit to Damascus in the next 48 hours.
Jumblatt said in remarks published in the daily Ash-Sharq al-Awsat on Tuesday, he would not visit Damascus prior to Hariri.
Meanwhile, Free Patriotic Movement MP Walid Khoury said on Tuesday he expected a meeting between Jumblatt and FPM leader Michel Aoun “soon.” Khoury added that the meeting was made after Jumblatt “started showing signs of change in his political stances.” – With additional reporting by Carol Rizk