BEIRUT: The Lebanese Cabinet Wednesday referred the much-delayed vote law to the Parliament for endorsement, clearing way for May 2018 parliamentary elections.
President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister Saad Hariri signed the decree to refer the new law to the Parliament.
Speaker Nabih Berri called for the Parliament to meet on Friday to approve the new electoral law. If endorsed, Lebanon could hold its first legislative elections in more than eight years.
Ministers agreed Wednesday to extend the Parliament's term by 11-months to give authorities enough time to prepare for the elections based on the new vote law.
Elections should be held between March 20 and May 19, 2018. They are expected to be held ahead of Ramadan on May 6, 2018.
"It's a historic achievement," Hariri told reporters in a news briefing after the session, adding that the 11-month delay gives authorities time to prepare for the elections, educate voters on the process, to issue magnetic voting cards and printed ballots, and to prepare for electronic vote tabulation.
However, the premier said that if authorities finished preparations quickly, then "we will head to polls earlier."
Several ministers expressed reservations on a number of articles, Hariri continued.
"We decided to put aside controversial items and focus on the common points."
The PM hoped that reforms would be included in later stages regarding the women's quota, voting age and other matters.
Asked about the Kataeb Party’s reservations, Hariri said "no comment."
"They have been in previous Cabinets. This Cabinet drafted a vote law within five months. They have been in Cabinets for three and five years and did nothing," Hariri said.
Aoun told ministers at the beginning of the session that an agreement on the new electoral law "might not achieve fully balanced representation, but it's a step forward."
"The vote law is a tremendous achievement. The [voting system] in Lebanon has been majoritarian since before [Lebanon's] independence," Aoun added.
He noted that the Cabinet will remain in session until it endorses the new vote law and refers it to the Parliament.
Hariri began his address to the Cabinet by saying that the 1960 vote law “was “behind us."
"The extension that we are seeking is only technical to stage modern, transparent and impartial elections," Hariri said.
The new vote law averts a Parliamentary vacuum, he continued.
Aoun and Hariri met ahead of the session.
Ministers received a draft of the new vote law late Tuesday night. The law includes 125 articles, and is based on proportional representation.
State Minister for Parliamentary Affairs Ali Qanso said that rivals managed to agree on a vote law "despite our reservations," reiterating that Lebanon should be treated as one constituency for elections.
Industry Minister Hussein Hajj Hasan said that the new vote law includes the "most important form of reforms, which is the proportionality.
Aoun and Hariri agreed during their meeting ahead of the session on a 11-month technical extension of Parliament’s mandate to allow for the implementation of the deal, a source told The Daily Star.
In addition to dividing Lebanon into 15 electoral districts under a proportional voting system, the agreement states that the preferential vote should be based on the qada [district], rather than muhafaza [governorate] as demanded by some parties.
The agreement also introduces a magnetic voting card that would reportedly allow Lebanese voters living outside their electoral constituencies to vote at their constituency of residence, within Lebanon and abroad.
Lebanese diaspora would be allotted six parliamentary seats in the next elections after four years.
Municipality members, who wish to run for Parliament, will have to resign from their duties a month after the vote law is published in the Official Gazette. The previous period was two years.
Unapproved demands included granting the military the right to vote, and a quota for women in Parliament, and dropping the the voting age from 21 to 18.
A number of ministers criticized the agreement without hinting at blocking it.
Kataeb MP Nadim Gemayel tweeted against the approach of rivals to resolve political standstill.
"[We] will answer your call [Hezbollah chief sayyed Hasan] Nasrallah," Gemayel said. The phrase is repeatedly used by Hezbollah's supporters to express loyalty to Nasrallah.
Education Minister Marwan Hamadeh said ahead of the session that he didn't understand the vote law.
"We didn't object on the law but we have several notes regarding the age of voting, women quota and the voting of expats," he said.
Minister of State for Women’s Affairs Jean Ogasapian said that he would propose during the session the addition of an article that guarantees that each list would include a female candidate.
Several rights groups and organizations have long lobbied for a women’s quota, arguing that a minimum 30 percent of seats should be filled by women in parliamentary elections. The current Parliament of 128 has only four female MPs.
The major breakthrough in the months-long deadlock over the vote law capped a series of intensive and hectic meetings of political rivals chaired by Hariri overnight Monday and all day Tuesday in a stepped up flurry of activity to agree on the final version of the agreement reached by Aoun, Speaker Nabih Berri and the premier at Baabda Palace on June 1.
The vote law agreement is considered a big political achievement for both Aoun and Hariri, especially the latter who had declared that the failure to agree on a new electoral law would be viewed as a failure of his government.
The agreement came six days before the expiration of Parliament’s term, thus averting a vacuum in the legislative body with all the grave consequences this entails on the country’s stability.
It also buries once and for all the disputed 1960 majoritarian voting system used in the last elections in 2009 to which all the political parties have been averse, at least in public.