BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanese parliamentarians failed on Thursday in a last effort to elect a successor to President Michel Suleiman before his term expires, leaving a political vacuum as the country struggles to cope with spillover from Syria's civil war.
Parliament's fifth attempt to vote for a new president was abandoned when deputies failed to reach a quorum on Thursday, 48 hours before Suleiman is due to leave the presidential palace.
The deadlock stems from deep divisions, worsened by sectarian tensions over Syria's conflict, between Lebanon's two main political blocs: the Hezbollah-led March 8 coalition which supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and the rival March 14 camp which backs Assad's opponents.
"We are heading for a vacuum in the presidential palace," parliamentarian Khaled el-Daher told reporters after Thursday's session which was boycotted by March 8 deputies because of the failure to agree on a consensus candidate.
The deadlock comes as Lebanon struggles to cope with more than 1 million refugees who fled neighbouring Syria and now form up to a quarter of the population, straining the economy and upsetting Lebanon's delicate sectarian balance.
Most of the refugees, like the rebels fighting to topple Assad, are Sunni Muslims. Assad, from Syria's Alawite minority which is an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, is backed by Shi'ite Hezbollah and its patron Iran.
Lebanon's presidency, allocated to the Maronite Christian community under Lebanon's sectarian division of power, is one of the three main political offices alongside the prime minister - a Sunni Muslim - and parliamentary speaker - a Shi'ite.
"The country is heading into the unknown and nobody knows whether this vacuum will be brief or prolonged," March 14 parliamentarian Ahmed Fatfat told Reuters. "We have entered a new and dangerous phase".
Despite Fatfat's dire warning, most Lebanese have become accustomed to protracted political stalemate whenever the time comes to choose a new parliament, government or president.
Salam took a year to find support for the government he formed in March, while parliamentary elections which were due last summer were postponed until this November, stymied by the same standoff holding up the choice of new president.
In the end, Lebanese politicians have relied on agreement between outside patrons - Saudi Arabia for March 14 and Iran for March 8 - to resolve differences.
But Syria's war has polarised regional players just as it has Lebanon's domestic factions, and Lebanon is currently just one problem in a multitude of Middle East crises.
"The Lebanese think that as soon as the Saudis and Iranians sit down at the negotiating table, the third party will be Lebanon. That's absolutely not correct," said Nabil Bou Monsef, a columnist at Lebanon's Al-Nahar newspaper, arguing that regional powers have other priorities.
In the absence of an elected successor, Suleiman's powers will pass to Prime Minister Tammam Salam's government, which is also supposed to prepare for a parliamentary election later this year.
But Bou Monsef said the presidential vacuum, which he predicted could drag on as long as a year, might well affect the timing of the parliamentary vote too. "Another extension of the parliamentary term looks certain," he said.
Writing by Dominic Evans; editing by Ralph Boulton