Lebanon is facing multiple internal crises as the flames of the regional fire lap at its doorstep. Rather than putting their differences aside to find solutions, politicians are calculating how best to minimize the anticipated popular backlash to yet another seemingly inevitable extension to Parliament’s mandate. According to a high-placed political source, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri has increased his efforts to convene a session to extend Parliament’s mandate before Aug. 20, although all parties are aware of the anger such a move will likely provoke among their supporters.
So far, the parties have failed to elect a president, agree on a new parliamentary election law, find a solution to the salary scale issue, effectively address the water and electricity shortages, deal with the Lebanese University appointments crisis, or solve any of the many other problems facing the country, and they fear how they will be perceived when they rush to approve an extension for themselves.
According to the source, Berri is applying pressure on all parliamentary blocs using his right-hand man, Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil, who is demanding that Parliament pass a special law to approve the salaries of some 170,000 public sector employees. Berri is reportedly hoping this will force the political powers, especially the Future Movement, to attend the Parliament in order to approve the salary law and the extension.
The source went on to say that the political awkwardness resulting from any decision to extend Parliament’s mandate would be most acute for the Christian parties of both March 8 and March 14. Last time Parliament extended its mandate, Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun came out against it, and he is expected to do so again, especially after his stance won him big points with his Christian base, which is even more frustrated and outraged now by the vacancy in the presidency. In light of this, his rival, Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, will find it very difficult to vote for the extension again, as he did last time.
The source concluded by saying that Berri was moving toward convening a tripartite political meeting between Khalil, Future Movement official Nader Hariri, and Progressive Socialist Party representative Health Minister Wael Abu Faour to prepare the political landscape for the extension of Parliament’s mandate.
He is particularly keen to gain Christian cover for doing so, and has opened discreet channels of communication with Maronite Patriarch Bechara Rai in an attempt to win his backing for the extension.
Meanwhile, the Future Movement has said it would only attend Parliamentary sessions for matters of national urgency, leaving a window, however small, for Berri to convince or coerce it into attending.
Last week, Berri signaled a possible extension of Parliament’s mandate if a new president was not elected by mid-August, in the first strong indication that parliamentary polls, scheduled in November, could not be held amid the vacuum.