BEIRUT: Prime Minister Saad Hariri said Monday there would be no divisions from now on between the government and the president, sending the clearest signal on his continued agreement and cooperation with President Michel Aoun on running the country. Meanwhile, Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk sounded pessimistic about the chances of reaching an agreement on a new voting system soon, indicating that his ministry was preparing to conduct the upcoming parliamentary elections under the disputed 1960 majoritarian law.
“There will be no divisions from now on at the governance level,” Hariri said during a meeting with a delegation from the Roman Catholic Higher Council, led by Minister of State for Planning Michel Pharaon, at the Grand Serail.
The premier added that he was in daily contact with Aoun, discussing with him “various issues and problems facing Lebanon.”
Hariri’s remarks categorically rejected reports alleging a rift with Aoun following the president’s warning during a Cabinet session last month that he would prefer a vacuum in Parliament over a new extension of the legislature’s mandate.
Hariri also told the delegation that the government was committed to endorsing a new electoral law to replace the 1960 system. “We have come a long way in this direction,” he said, according to a statement released by his media office.
Hariri had discussed ongoing efforts to reach agreement on a new voting system with Lebanese Forces chief Samir Geagea Sunday night.
The two leaders “agreed on the need to reach as soon as possible a new draft electoral law that enjoys the consensus of political blocs and takes into account the concerns of all the parties,” said a statement released by Hariri’s office after the meeting held at his Downtown Beirut residence.
In addition to his pessimism about a new electoral law, Machnouk urged Aoun to reconsider his tough stance in order to avoid being part of the rival parties’ political wrangling over a new voting system to replace the 1960 law.
“President Gen. Michel Aoun enjoys full leadership and is not obligated to take stances [intended] to gain popularity. Hence, I hope that he will reconsider his stance toward the ongoing debate over a new electoral law, emanating from his position that he will be a president [who respects] all Lebanese [political] options and out of concern that the presidency’s seat and the president’s remarks will not become a divisive issue,” Machnouk said in an interview with the London-based Alaraby TV station aired Monday.
He recalled that Aoun had spoken twice about holding the elections on time, following clear messages from foreign powers that the president’s tough statements amounted to “a coup against political stability and against a major regional settlement” that led to Aoun’s election as president on Oct. 31 and the formation of a new government by Hariri.
Commenting on Aoun’s demand for a new electoral law that would be fair to the Christians, Machnouk said: “Certainly, the president can say his opinion inside the Cabinet by supporting this or that orientation. But he must not be part of the political tug-of-war [over a vote law].”
Machnouk was apparently referring to Aoun’s warning that he would prefer a vacuum in the legislative body over a new extension of Parliament’s mandate. This was Aoun’s strongest signal yet concerning his opposition to the 1960 sectarian-based majoritarian electoral law that divides Lebanon into small- and medium-sized constituencies.
Aoun also rejected Machnouk’s demands for the formation of a 10-member commission to oversee the elections before an agreement was reached on a new vote law.
Machnouk said his ministry was preparing to hold the elections under the 1960 law in the absence of an agreement by the rival factions on a new voting system.
Referring to a four-party committee struggling to agree on a new law ahead of the Feb. 21 deadline for the May 21 elections, Machnouk said: “Those concerned with discussions and negotiations say it is possible to reach a new [vote] law. But my personal view is that they will not able to reach [an agreement].”
He added that the Interior Ministry is bound by law and the Constitution to hold the elections on time on May 21 under the 1960 system. “If they reached a new law before May 21, that is on May 20, they can set a new date for elections. This means that they have February, March, April and more than half of May [to agree on a vote law],” he said.
However, in sharp contrast with Machnouk’s gloomy outlook, Aoun Monday reassured the Lebanese that there would be a new electoral law that ensures “just representation” for all Lebanese.
“There is no need to worry about the discussions over the next electoral law because the elections will eventually be held and Lebanon will continue the recovery process it began three months ago,” Aoun said during a meeting with visitors at Baabda Palace.
Machnouk’s remarks came a day after MP Walid Jumblatt escalated his opposition to a proportional vote law by calling for the adoption of an amended version of the 1960 system, or the creation of a senate and abolition of political confessionalism as stipulated by the 1989 Taif Accord.
Jumblatt’s parliamentary Democratic Gathering bloc has spearheaded a fierce campaign against a controversial hybrid vote law proposal that calls for electing a part of parliamentary seats under a majoritarian system and another part under a proportional vote law. The proposal was floated by Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, during meetings of the four-party committee which also includes Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil from the Amal Movement, Nader Hariri, and Hezbollah MP Ali Fayyad.
For his part, Kataeb Party chief MP Sami Gemayel warned that time was running out for an agreement on a new voting system, reiterating the party’s opposition to the 1960 law.
“We are one week away from the call on electoral bodies [to prepare for elections] according to the 1960 law. I issue the last warning that if a new electoral law was not approved within a week, we will be heading to the 1960 law,” Gemayel told reporters after meeting with former President Michel Sleiman. He said that if an agreement is not reached on a vote law in the next three months, it would lead to a “technical” extension of Parliament’s term. “Both options are rejected,” he said.
Gemayel also rejected Jumblatt’s call for an amended version of the 1960 law. “We clearly and frankly don’t agree to the return of the 1960 law,” he said.
A delegation from Jumblatt’s bloc also met with Sleiman as part of touring political leaders to convey their opposition to the hybrid vote law proposal.