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Siniora makes case for Parliament extension

MP Walid Jumblatt, right, speaks during a joint press conference with Marada Movement leader Sleiman Frangieh in the northern town of Bneshaai, Monday, Aug. 18, 2014. (The Daily Star/Stringer)

BEIRUT: Former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora sent the strongest signal yet Monday about the possible extension of Parliament’s mandate for a limited period, citing similar security threats to the ones that had led to last year’s extension.

The Cabinet, meanwhile, failed to meet the legal deadline to publish a decree calling on the electorate to vote in parliamentary polls scheduled for November.

Citing security conditions mentioned by Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk that were not conducive to holding parliamentary elections on time, Siniora, the head of the parliamentary Future bloc, said: “We may be duty-bound to resort to an extension of Parliament’s mandate, but only for a limited period.”

However, Siniora stressed that the new extension of Parliament’s term should be used to elect a successor to former President Michel Sleiman, whose six-year tenure ended on May 25. “The election of a president should be given priority over any other matter,” he told reporters after meeting Sleiman.

Referring to last year’s extension of Parliament’s term for 17 months, Siniora said: “We are now going through a similar phase. No doubt, we wish we could ensure [holding] true parliamentary elections, but we are now in a difficult position. Priority should be given to the election of a president, and subsequently proceed toward holding parliamentary elections. But the security circumstances which the interior minister and others have spoken of make this matter difficult.”

The elections, originally set for June 2013, were delayed by Parliament last May. MPs, citing the security situation and the inability of rival parties to agree on a new electoral law, voted to extend Parliament’s term by 17 months.

For his part, Machnouk stressed the need for the Cabinet to publish the decree calling on the electorate to participate in parliamentary elections. “It must be issued by the Cabinet in order for it to become effective,” Machnouk said Monday. “The issue will be discussed in the Cabinet’s extraordinary session Tuesday.”

However, Social Affairs Minister Rashid Derbas said the decree was not on the Cabinet’s agenda for Tuesday’s session, saying instead that the topic would likely be discussed in another session set for Thursday.

The decree calling on the electorate to vote should have been published before Monday, Aug. 18, as per the 90-day constitutional deadline before the date of parliamentary polls scheduled for Nov. 16.

Although he had issued the decree to the Cabinet, Machnouk said last week that security agencies had advised against holding the parliamentary elections.

Several officials have also hinted that the parliamentary polls would be delayed in light of security threats linked to the repercussions of the war in Syria, especially following five days of fierce clashes earlier this month between the Lebanese Army and Islamist militants in the northeastern town of Arsal.

Siniora’s remarks came as attempts to extend Parliament’s term moved into high gear last week, after Zahle MP Nicolas Fattoush presented a draft proposal for the extension of the legislative body’s term by two years and seven months, arguing that the move was aimed at protecting civil peace in the face of security threats.

Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Siniora said last week they supported a new extension of Parliament’s term in the event a new president could not be elected.

MP Walid Jumblatt was also reported to be supporting a limited extension of Parliament’s mandate.

However, Speaker Nabih Berri, MP Michel Aoun’s bloc, Hezbollah and Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea said they opposed attempts to extend Parliament’s term.Labor Minister Sejaan Azzi told MTV that his Kataeb Party also opposed the extension of Parliament’s mandate.

Health Minister Wael Abu Faour from Jumblatt’s bloc said that had a president been elected, there would have been no excuse for any political party to call for an extension of Parliament’s term.

“The extension of Parliament’s mandate is motivated by fears of complete vacuum in institutions,” Abu Faour told reporters after meeting Sleiman. “Had there been an election of a president, then there wouldn’t have been any justification for any of the political parties to demand an extension of Parliament’s mandate.”

In a bid to break the three-month-old presidential deadlock, Telecommunications Minister Boutros Harb proposed adopting a simple majority quorum for electoral sessions after Parliament had failed to secure a two-thirds quorum because of a boycott by lawmakers from Aoun’s bloc and Hezbollah’s bloc and its March 8 allies.

“Just as we concluded from the Constitution that the first round required a two-thirds quorum, as well as two-thirds of votes needed for the election of a candidate, then let’s conclude that a simple majority quorum with an absolute majority vote are required for the following rounds of voting,” Harb told a news conference announcing his initiative.

Meanwhile, Jumblatt held talks with Marada Movement leader MP Sleiman Frangieh as part of the Progressive Socialist Party chief’s consultations with rival politicians to help break the presidential impasse. Accompanied by his son, Taymour, Jumblatt met Frangieh at the latter’s residence in the northern town of Bneshaai.

Acknowledging political differences with Frangieh, a key ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, Jumblatt, an outspoken critic of the Syrian leader, said after the meeting: “Regardless of political differences ... there are some common grounds that begin with maintaining Lebanon’s sovereignty, independence and stability.”

Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai decried Parliament’s failure to elect a president, saying the presidential void was a disgrace in the country’s history. “Five months have passed and Lebanon is still without a president and the presidential palace is closed,” Rai said, referring to Parliament’s attempts since April to elect a president. “This is very shameful for our Lebanese dignity.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 19, 2014, on page 1.

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