Lebanon News

Aoun lays down the law on new vote legislation

Aoun heads a Cabinet session in Beirut, Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2017. (The Daily Star/Dalati Nohra, HO)

BEIRUT: In a serious escalation of his opposition to the 1960 electoral law Wednesday, President Michel Aoun said he would prefer a vacuum in the legislative body over a new extension of Parliament’s mandate in the latest twist of a widening row over a new voting system.

Aoun’s remarks, made during a Cabinet session he chaired at Baabda Palace, were clearly aimed at pushing rival factions to agree on a new vote law to replace the disputed 1960 majoritarian system ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for May.

“No one can threaten us with [parliamentary] vacuum or an extension [of Parliament’s term]. The swearing-in speech is clear on the necessity to reach a [new] electoral law and we must work on this,” Aoun told the ministers, according to a source at Baabda Palace.

“Given a choice between an extension of Parliament’s term or vacuum, my stance is clear on this subject: I will choose a vacuum,” the source quoted him as saying. Aoun added that when he was elected by Parliament as Lebanon’s 13th president on Oct. 31, he took the oath to safeguard the Constitution.

Aoun also rejected Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk’s demands from outside the Cabinet agenda for the formation of a 10-member commission to oversee the upcoming parliamentary elections before an agreement was reached on a new vote law.

Addressing his words to Machnouk, Aoun said: “I have discussed this subject with you but I don’t agree to it because it is our duty to approve an [electoral] law before appointing the commission’s members.”

Aoun criticized rival politicians for failing to reach agreement on a new vote system to replace the 1960 law. “All the parties agreed to adopt a new electoral law. If after eight years we have been unable to approve an electoral law, then our credibility is at stake,” he said.

During numerous meetings with Lebanese politicians and foreign officials, Aoun has vowed to hold the elections under a new vote system. However, Wednesday’s comments were the strongest signal yet concerning his opposition to the 1960 sectarian-based majoritarian electoral law that divides Lebanon into small- and medium-sized constituencies.

Aoun’s remarks came a day after the Free Patriotic Movement warned that it would take “legitimate and constitutional means” to prevent attempts to keep the 1960 law in place or extend Parliament’s mandate that expires in June.

Lebanese Forces chief Samir Geagea has also warned of “negative political steps” if the Christians were to choose between either the postponement of elections or holding them under the 1960 law.

Speaker Nabih Berri joined Aoun in warning against a new extension of Parliament’s term, which has been extended twice, once in 2013 and again in 2014, saying that the extension would be the worst possible scenario for Lebanon. He reiterated his opposition to the 1960 law, stressing that proportional representation was the key to “Lebanon’s salvation.”

“Extension of Parliament’s term is the worst thing. The 1960 law keeps the situation as it is in Parliament, suppresses independent voices and does not guarantee true representation,” Berri said during a meeting with a delegation from the Press Federation headed by its chairman Aouni al-Kaaki. He said meetings were being held to agreeing on a new voting system. “I will not approve any [vote] law that doesn’t satisfy any sect,” he said.In an intensified flurry of activity aimed at reaching agreement on a new vote law, representatives of the FPM, the Future Movement, the Amal Movement and Hezbollah met at Baabda Palace Wednesday to try to find common ground on a unified system to govern the May elections.

The participants agreed that they must seek an electoral system that satisfies all the parties. “Contacts are ongoing with other factions and it’s too early to talk about a unified or final vision,” Amal Movement Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil told reporters after the meeting that was also attended by FPM leader and Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, MP Ali Fayyad from Hezbollah, and Nader Hariri, chief of Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s staff.

The conferees stressed that the meeting did not mean an alliance or a front among the four parties. “Our meeting does not seek to exclude anyone and it doesn’t have an alliance character,” Fayyad said, adding that another meeting will be held Friday. Nader Hariri said the meeting focused on proposed alternatives to the 1960 law.

A source at Baabda Palace told The Daily Star that talks on an electoral law are pondering two options: A hybrid law that includes provisions from the majoritarian system and proportional systems, or a new law based on the majoritarian system. The source added that rival parties insisted on soothing MP Walid Jumblatt’s fears over a vote law.

Lebanese parties are divided over adopting a proportional electoral law or a hybrid law that include aspects of the proportional and the 1960 winner-take-all systems. The FPM, the Amal Movement and Hezbollah have been pressing for conducting the elections under a proportional vote system.

The security situation and ongoing efforts to reach agreement on a new vote law dominated the Cabinet session.

However, the Cabinet did approve a decree to launch the first round of tenders to allow the start of offshore oil and gas exploration.

It also approved the country’s request to join the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative following recommendations by the Lebanese Petroleum Administration, the Finance Ministry and the parliamentary Public Works, Energy and Water Committee. EITI promotes public awareness about how countries manage their oil, gas and mineral resources.

Earlier this month, the Cabinet approved two decrees that paved the way for the first licensing round of offshore oil and gas exploration in Lebanon’s Exclusive Economic Zone by designating which blocks would be open for bidding. They are also necessary to determine which blocks are up for auction and develop a revenue-sharing model.

The Cabinet also approved allocations worth LL42 billion ($28 million) to carry out work and buy security and technical equipment to shore up security at Beirut’s Rafik Hariri International Airport, according to a statement read to reporters by Culture Minister Ghattas Khoury.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 26, 2017, on page 1.

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