BEIRUT: Speaker Nabih Berri opened the first meeting of the joint parliamentary committees Monday by warning the feuding parties that Lebanon would be in danger if they failed to agree on a new electoral law to govern this year’s polls.
Overriding objections by March 14 MPs, the joint parliamentary committees began discussing the Orthodox Gathering’s controversial electoral proposal as a first item.
In the evening session, chaired by Berri, the committees, which include lawmakers from the March 8 and March 14 parties, voted for an article in the Orthodox proposal calling for the number of Parliament members to be increased from 128 to 134.
MPs from the parliamentary Future bloc voted for this article, the state-run National News Agency reported.
Following two rounds of talks Monday, Berri adjourned the committees’ meeting to Tuesday morning.
Kataeb MP Sami Gemayel, speaking during the committees’ evening session, defended the minorities’ rights and his demand for increasing the number of Parliament members.
“The six MPs who have been added to the number of lawmakers are divided as follows: a Syriac Catholic MP, a Syriac Orthodox MP and a Greek Catholic MP in return for a Shiite MP, a Sunni MP and a Druze MP,” he said.
Berri’s warning came as President Michel Sleiman reiterated his rejection of the Orthodox Gathering’s controversial proposal, while Prime Minister Najib Mikati indicated that the government would have to call for the June 9 parliamentary elections to be held under the 1960 voting system if Parliament failed to approve a new electoral law.
It also came after a parliamentary subcommittee, comprising lawmakers from the March 8 and March 14 parties, failed in several rounds of marathon talks in the past few weeks to reach a consensus on any hybrid vote law to end the monthslong deadlock over a new electoral law.
Referring to the bitter struggle between the Hezbollah-led March 8 alliance and the opposition March 14 coalition over a new electoral law, Berri told lawmakers at the opening of the joint parliamentary committees’ meeting: “The war for electoral boxes should only be in Lebanon’s interest. If we do not agree with each other [on a vote law], Lebanon will be in danger.”
“Allow me, and in the name of everyone, to welcome all brothers who have distanced themselves from each other, and I am not saying they have boycotted [Parliament]. The more we stay away from each other, the worse the consequences will be, not only in Parliament, but in all of Lebanon,” Berri said, referring to Future bloc MPs who decided to attend the committees’ meeting, reversing an earlier decision to boycott the government and all Cabinet-related meetings in Parliament.
“All of you know what is happening around us,” Berri told the lawmakers, referring to the nearly two-year-old bloody conflict in Syria and its repercussions on Lebanon.
Following Berri’s opening remarks, head of the parliamentary subcommittee MP Robert Ghanem gave a presentation on the results of the subcommittee’s deliberations.
March 14 MPs Boutros Harb, Marwan Hamade and Samir Jisr demanded that Berri give the hybrid vote proposal precedence in the joint committees’ discussions, arguing that the Orthodox proposal contravened the Constitution.
However, the demand was turned down by Berri, who said that the Orthodox draft would be given priority given that it was the first proposal to be referred to the joint committees, a March 14 parliamentary source told The Daily Star.
Sleiman indirectly reiterated his objection to the Orthodox proposal, warning that it would deepen sectarian divisions in the country.
“I hope that the joint parliamentary committees will take into consideration the national interest and the inevitability of holding the elections on time in respect of the rotation of power, maintaining national unity and safeguarding coexistence,” Sleiman said, according to a statement released by his office.
He added that he hoped the committees would avoid “all draft laws that enhance confessional and sectarian divisions because they contravene the Constitution on the one hand, and threaten civil peace on the other.”
“This matter [sectarian proposals] is no longer acceptable by the overwhelming majority of the Lebanese who are aspiring for justice, freedom and equality and are committed to democracy, with the elections being its cornerstone,” Sleiman said.
He urged the rival factions “to study a modern electoral law that takes a true and fair representation into account and is not influenced by narrow electoral calculations which serve the interest of personal gains at the expense of the national interest.”
The Orthodox proposal, which gained the support of the country’s four rival Maronite parties – the Lebanese Forces, the Kataeb Party, MP Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, and Zghorta MP Suleiman Franjieh’s Marada Movement – projects Lebanon as a single district where each sect elects its members of parliament under a proportional representation system.
However, Sleiman, Mikati, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt and some independent Christian March 14 lawmakers have rejected the Orthodox proposal, warning it would sharpen sectarian divisions and encourage extremism in the country.
For his part, Mikati said that despite his opposition to the 1960 vote law, the government would prepare for the elections based on this law if Parliament failed to agree on a new voting system.
Referring to the 1960 law, Mikati said: “There is a law that is in force and there are constitutional deadlines. We will carry out our duty and we should separate between the work of the government and constitutional obligations and political opinions.”
Sleiman’s and Mikati’s comments came a day after Interior Minister Marwan Charbel warned that time was running out for lawmakers to agree on a new electoral proposal.
After attending the joint committees’ morning session, former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, described the Future Movement’s decision to participate in the committees’ meetings as an “exceptional” case.
Siniora, head of the parliamentary Future bloc, warned against adopting the Orthodox proposal, saying “it will sooner or later lead to dividing Lebanon into sectarian groups.”
“In fact, this [Orthodox] proposal will lead to upsetting and contradicting coexistence, which is the main pillar of the Lebanese society and the entire country,” Siniora told a news conference in Parliament.
The former prime minister added that the Orthodox proposal violated and contradicted the Constitution.
Siniora said the joint committee would discuss proposals other than the Orthodox draft law.