Lebanon News

Chatah: Small districts would boost Christians

Chatah: Syria is carrying its crisis here. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

BEIRUT: The electoral law proposal that raises the weight of Christian voters the most is the one proposed by the March 14 coalition, former Finance Minister Mohammad Chatah said Tuesday, adding that the government’s proposal is worse in that sense than the existing 1960 law.

He added that a failure to reach agreement on a new law does not mean that elections will not be held on time. “Today, there is an impasse; an impasse leads to the default 1960 law. Technically speaking, if there is no law, the existing law will be applied,” Chatah said.

Fears have resurfaced in recent weeks that the upcoming 2013 parliamentary elections would be postponed if rival leaders in Lebanon fail to agree on a new electoral law that would replace the current one that is seen by many as unfavorable.

Chatah, a senior foreign policy adviser of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, said that a failure to hold elections on time would greatly harm the state and its institutions.

“It is a matter of principle and respect of the constitution to hold elections. Not doing so will further weaken the Lebanese state and its institutions. The Constitution does not permit not holding the election on time,” Chatah said.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Daily Star at his offices in downtown Beirut, Chatah argued that the proposal of adopting 50 small-sized districts is the only law in discussion that would raise the weight of Christian voters in the elections. The so-called Greek Orthodox law is simply unconstitutional, he said.

According to Chatah, the weight of Christian voters in electing Christian MPs would increase by 10 percent if the small-sized districts law is adopted for next year’s elections while the government’s proposal would decrease the weight of Christian voters in electing their MPs by 4 percent.

“The March 14 proposal would increase the weight of Christian vote in electing 128 members of the Parliament from 42.5 to 43.5 percent, and it would raise the weight of Christian voters in electing 64 Christian MPs from 63 to 73 percent.

“What the government’s plan does is it actually decrease the weight of Christian voters in electing 64 MPs from 63 to 59 percent,” Chatah said, adding that the government’s proposal is worse in that respect than the admittedly deficient existing electoral law.

With less than three months left for the country to launch preparations for the upcoming 2013 parliamentary elections, rival leaders in Lebanon have yet to agree on a new electoral law.

Under the government’s proposal, elections would be held in 13 electoral districts based on the proportional representation system.

Chatah wondered why Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun has backed down from his demands for better Christian representation.

“Surprisingly, Michel Aoun, who has previously rallied behind Christian voting rights is now reneging from the small districts ... He is against the small-districts law not because it’s not good for Christian representation but because Hezbollah is against it.”

Among the number of electoral law proposals, none of them enjoy overwhelming support.

Druze Progressive Socialist Party has so far rejected most proposals and believes the 1960 law a majoritarian system which adopts the qada as the electorate is currently the best option for Lebanon.

Chatah also said that despite the uncertainty over which draft would be adopted, the March 14 coalition is fully gearing up for the elections to prevent Hezbollah and its allies from widening their grip on the country.

A former ambassador to the U.S., Chatah wrapped up a visit to Washington last month where he met a number of officials in the White House and the State Department to discuss the situation in Lebanon and the region.

“American officials don’t believe there is any benefit in trying to upset the current status quo in Lebanon ... This is not a disinterest in Lebanon. American officials do not want turmoil and reject turning Lebanon to a theater for regional conflicts. That’s something we agree with,” Chatah said.

But Chatah said that Americans are still concerned of a possible spillover of the Syrian crisis amid the Syrian regime’s continuing efforts to deal with its desperate situation.

“From the Mamluk-Samaha affair to the recent reports of the direct involvement of Hezbollah in Syria, we see a trend in the Syrian regime’s policy in carrying its crisis into Lebanon,” he explained.

While Chatah said that Hezbollah still needs to clarify to the Lebanese people, including its own constituency, its involvement in Syria, he argued that the issue might become a greater concern for the international community in the coming weeks.

In the past few weeks, funeral services were held for at least two Hezbollah fighters who the party officials say died “performing a jihadist duty.”

While in Washington, Chatah was one of the key speakers at a panel discussion on the Lebanese banking sector at the Aspen Institute.

Chatah said that the rumors in the U.S. that the Lebanese banking sector is being used as an instrument of money laundering and financing of terrorism was very dangerous to Lebanon.

“It was a useful visit because it provided an opportunity to clarify many things that were erroneously mentioned by certain lobbying groups in the U.S,” he said.

“That dangerous atmosphere in the U.S. carried a risk of escalating pressures by lobbying groups for steps against the whole Lebanese banking sector ... Lebanon cannot afford such a thing,” said Chatah, who added that the political game in the U.S. allows lobbying groups to have influence over policymaking.

“Today the atmosphere in Washington is much better on more than one level: This is due not only due to the efforts to counter the lobbyists, but also to the actions taken by the Central Bank and the banks themselves in the past few months in closing certain regulatory gaps,” he added.

Back in July, allegations by the U.S. Treasury Department and several financial reports claimed that Lebanese banks were involved in money laundering, drug-trafficking schemes and attempts to help channel Syrian money to other countries.

A New York-based anti-Iran lobbying group launched a campaign urging American and European banks to leave Lebanon’s bond market due to its involvement in money laundering for Iran and Hezbollah.

“You cannot go to Washington and tell a fictitious story or try to smile your way into people’s minds and hearts. You have to be credible and demonstrate your seriousness,” Chatah said, adding that the Central Bank and banks in Lebanon have taken a number of steps that have improved the U.S. Treasury’s perception of Lebanon.

When asked why he was invited to talk about the country’s banking sector, Chatah argued that “being a member of the opposition perhaps gave more credibility to what I would say, since it could not be construed as a partisan attempt to defend the government.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 10, 2012, on page 3.




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