Lebanon News

Rival Christian parties in rare show of unity

Aoun receives Geagea in Rabieh. (The Daily Star/Charbel Nakhoul, HO)

BEIRUT: A crucial Parliament session this week to pass urgent draft laws has brought the country’s three leading rival Christian parties together in a rare show of unity given the deep-rooted political differences within the Christian community, analysts said Sunday. However, the three parties – the Free Patriotic Movement, the Lebanese Forces and the Kataeb Party – remain sharply split over key issues, such as the presidential election, a new electoral law and MP Michel Aoun’s drive for Christian partnership in the government decision-making, the analysts said.

“The FPM and LF will pass the legislative session test by either boycotting or attending the session together,” Sami Nader, a professor of economics and international relations at Université St. Joseph, told The Daily Star. “But the two parties’ Declaration of Intent cannot be translated in politics, given the sharp differences between them over major issues such as the presidency, Hezbollah’s arms and its involvement in the war in Syria and the Russian intervention in Syria.”

“The LF and FPM are at odds over an electoral law. While [FPM leader] Gen. Michel Aoun supports an electoral law based on proportional representation, the LF opposes proportionality,” said Nader, also the director of the Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs, a Beirut-based think tank.

“The only thing the two parties agree on is a draft law that would grant expatriates of Lebanese origin Lebanese citizenship. Aside from this, the LF and FPM are totally in disagreement over other local and regional issues,” he added.

An official close to Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai described the three parties’ unified stance on the upcoming legislative sessions as the “right step toward reaching a comprehensive national accord.”

“It is a serious attempt indicating that matters are on the right track toward unifying the Christian parties with the aim of consolidating national accord in Lebanon as Patriarch Rai has always demanded,” Hares Chehab, secretary-general of the Islamic-Christian National Dialogue Committee, told The Daily Star.

He said the three Christian parties’ expected boycott of the legislative sessions is not intended to serve as “a Christian alliance against the country’s Muslim component.”

Officials from the FPM and the LF have signaled that their lawmakers would not attend the first legislative sessions to be held in more than a year, mainly because an electoral draft law, a thorny and contentious issue, was not included on the agenda.

The Kataeb Party has said that amid the 17-month presidential vacuum it would not attend any legislative session before the election of a president.

The FPM and the LF led by Samir Geagea appear determined to translate their political alliance, or Declaration of Intent, into action by either attending or boycotting two legislative sessions that Speaker Nabih Berri has called for Thursday and Friday to approve urgent draft laws, deemed essential for the state’s finances and loans, including the World Bank’s $600 million in soft loans.

MP Ibrahim Kanaan from Aoun’s bloc, who discussed the legislative sessions with Rai over the weekend, said in an interview published by Al-Mustaqbal newspaper Sunday: “The FPM and the LF will decide whether to boycott the session together or participate in it together.”

Elaborating on his talks with Rai, who was reported to be supporting holding the legislative sessions to endorse financial draft laws, Kanaan said: “We and the patriarch support the need to approve financial draft laws. But there are also political priorities such as an electoral law and a citizenship draft law. These two draft laws do not concern the Christians only, but all the Lebanese people.”

Both Kanaan and LF media officer Melhem Riachi said in the interview with Al-Mustaqbal that acquiring the right to a Christian veto is one of the goals of the Declaration of Intent signed by the two parties.

Geagea, who also met with Rai in Bkirki over the weekend for consultations on the upcoming legislative sessions, criticized the exclusion of an electoral law from the agenda. “A new electoral law and a citizenship law are two important draft laws, and the rest is details,” Geagea told reporters after meeting Rai.

Kataeb Party chief MP Sami Gemayel reiterated the party’s position that Parliament should not endorse draft laws in the absence of a president.

“We must abide by the law and the Constitution which stipulates that there can be no legislation in the absence of the president,” Gemayel said during a dialogue meeting with Kataeb students at the conference palace in Dbayyeh Saturday.

“Instead of violating the law and the Constitution, Parliament must elect a president and revive institutions,” he added.

Berri has indicated that the legislative sessions would go ahead despite a possible boycott by the three Christian parties over the exclusion of an electoral law proposal from the agenda. He warned that if the upcoming legislative session was not held, this would amount to the country’s suicide.

World Bank loans planned for Lebanon will be canceled unless approved by Parliament before the end of the year, risking more pain for a struggling economy already hit by the political deadlock.

Berri said he has fulfilled a demand by Aoun to include on the session agenda the citizenship draft law and another bill to transfer cellphone revenues to the municipalities.

The 38 draft laws and proposals listed on the agenda as part of what lawmakers dubbed “legislation of necessity” excluded an electoral law proposal, a divisive issue that could torpedo the legislative session.

Simon Haddad, professor of political science at the American University of Beirut, said the FPM and the LF would be able to pass the legislative session in line with their Declaration of Intent.

“The FPM-LF alliance will not be affected by the upcoming legislative session. The two parties will overcome the legislative session challenge by either participating or boycotting the session,” Haddad told The Daily Star.

However, Haddad said that this alliance cannot be translated into further cooperation and coordination on key internal issues such as the presidential election and a new electoral law as “the LF and the FPM are divided on these topics as well as on regional issues, such as the nearly 5-year-old civil war in Syria and Hezbollah’s involvement in that war.”

The Declaration of Intent issued by Aoun and Geagea in June following six months of talks between the two sides called for the election of a strong president.

The document outlined 16 general points of agreement between the rival parties on certain key issues such as the need to elect a “strong president” that is representative of Christians and is accepted by Lebanon’s Muslim community.

It stressed that the election of a president and the drafting of a new electoral law would redirect the wrongful implementation of the National Pact by realizing proper national partnership between Muslims and Christians.

Although both Aoun and Geagea are bidding for the presidency, neither has been able to garner enough parliamentary support to win.

The declaration said that the new relationship between the LF and the FPM would be based on a mutual respect of democratic principles, whereby agreement on constitutional and democratic codes would surpass any existing political rivalry.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 09, 2015, on page 3.

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