BEIRUT: A joint commission of parliamentary committees failed to reach a quorum on Thursday to decide on an electoral law to govern next month's parliamentary elections, effectively ending any hope the country's opposing political parties could reach a compromise on the contentious issue. Meanwhile Cabinet used its first official session to replace three of the country's top security chiefs and public prosecutor.
At least 45 MPs, including representatives from 15 parliamentary committees and Lebanon's various political blocs, were recorded as in attendance for Thursday's session, which was the last possible day to decide on what size of districts to be used in upcoming elections to be held in May.
Prime Minister Najib Mikati had said earlier this week that if the commission failed to come to a decision he would rule the elections be held according to the law of the last parliamentary elections held in 2000.
After closing the session, Deputy Speaker Michel Murr, spoke to the media and blamed opposition MPs for the commission's failure to meet the minimum number of MPs required to convene the discussion.
He said: "I opened the session and 15 MPs asked to speak. Instead of going straight to the issue at hand, everyone spoke on points of procedure and then left the hall and never came back, leaving [only] 19 MPs in attendance."
Murr said despite the fact the draft election law offered by the previous government was the first item on the session's agenda, all opposition MPs in attendance left the chamber without ever discussing the issue.
Speaker Nabih Berri had called on the parliamentary committees Wednesday to resume discussions of a law based on small electoral districts offered by the previous government alongside other proposals advocating larger constituencies paired with proportional representation.
Murr said: "I wonder why the opposition MPs did not show any interest in discussing their preferable election law."
But, opposition MPs denied blame and said Thursday's session was only meant for show as a deal had been struck earlier in the week between the Amal Movement, Hizbullah, opposition leader Walid Jumblatt and former Premier Rafik Hariri's Dignity bloc on the 2000 law.
Metn MP Neamatallah Abi Nasr said: "The four political forces agreed on the timing and on a joint proposal of the law organizing the poll."
He further accused Murr of wasting time by continuing to discuss "side issues."
Later in the day, President Emile Lahoud met privately with Mikati and Justice Minister Khaled Qabbani, Interior Minister Hassan Sabaa and Education and Culture Minister Assad Rizk before presiding over Cabinet's first session.
During the meeting, Cabinet put State Prosecutor Adnan Addoum and the director of the State Security Agency Edward Mansour "at the [government's] disposal" - understood to mean they have been dismissed - and appointed new heads to the
Internal Security Forces and Military Intelligence.
Judge Saeed Mirza was immediately appointed to replace Addoum, while a successor was not named for Mansour.
ISF chief Ali Hajj, who resigned earlier in the week, was replaced by Brigadier General Ashraf Rifi. Military Intelligence chief Raymond Azar, who left for France with his family last week after taking administrative leave, was replaced by acting chief George Khoury.
But Cabinet postponed a decision on naming a head for the Surete Generale to replace Major General Jamil Sayyed, who also resigned earlier in the week.
According to reports, Sayyed's replacement was the subject of heated discussion between Deputy Premier and Defense Minister Elias Murr and Labor and Agriculture Minister Tarrad Hamade over whether the post should go to a Shiite or Greek Orthodox representative.
Speaking to media following the meeting, Hamade said: "We do not discriminate between the different sects
but Lebanon stands momentarily on communal balance and it is not the right time to upset this balance."
But, Mikati denied a candidate's confession was a consideration, affirming the government was acting on the basis of national interests when considering who to appoint.
He added: "We are looking for the right candidate regardless of his or her sect or religious belief."
Rizk reiterated the government's main task is still holding the elections.
He said: "Holding the election is the government's priority. Time is too short even to reconsider the election law. The Cabinet has decided to adopt the law of 2000."
Meanwhile, sources said the opposition is worried about introducing several amendments to the General Amnesty law of 1991 that could divert attention away from calls for the release from prison of Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea or complicate his case.
Regarding the Christian opposition's chances of success in the upcoming polls, Abi Nasr said: "The Christian opposition in particular expects the same marginalization experienced in previous elections with the same exclusion, but this time under an international supervision."
- Additional reporting by Nafez Kawas