BEIRUT: The joint parliamentary committees’ approval of a controversial electoral proposal Tuesday has apparently deepened political divisions in the country, denting hopes for holding the June elections on time.
Speaker Nabih Berri and Interior Minister Marwan Charbel issued appeals for the rival political factions to reach a consensus on a new electoral law if the polls are to be held on time.
Charbel said the joint committees’ approval of the Orthodox Gathering’s electoral proposal was not sufficient to hold the parliamentary elections as scheduled. He ruled out holding the elections unless a consensus was reached on a new electoral law.
“No elections will be held in the absence of a consensus on a new electoral law,” Charbel told The Daily Star. “What happened in Parliament today [Tuesday] was meant to give [the parties] more time to search for a consensual solution to the electoral law problem. If no consensus was reached, there would be no elections.”
Berri’s and Charbel’s appeals came amid rising fears that the elections might not be held at all, given the sharp split over the Orthodox proposal that was approved by the joint committees.
Labeled “a black day” for Parliament by former Prime Minister Saad Hariri and an “achievement” by Free Patriotic Movement leader MP Michel Aoun, the endorsement of the Orthodox draft law reflected the wide schism among rival factions over what legislation best ensures fair representation for all sects.
Berri, apprehensive of the dire consequences of the split over an electoral law, appealed to the March 8 and March 14 parties to reach a consensus on a voting system to govern the elections.
Addressing the feuding parties, Berri told The Daily Star: “You have the 1960 law behind you and the Orthodox proposal in front of you. Therefore, you have no choice but to reach consensus.”
Berri, who chaired the joint committees’ meeting that endorsed the Orthodox draft law, said he would not call Parliament’s general assembly to meet soon to vote on the controversial proposal – a move apparently aimed at giving a chance to reach consensus.
“I will take my time in order to hold consultations with all the parties with a view to securing a consensus on a new electoral law,” Berri said. He added that he felt there was a good chance for reaching a consensus on a new electoral law.
Charbel said that if the Orthodox proposal won a majority of MPs’ votes in the general assembly, it would be challenged by lawmakers, a step that would subsequently lead to postponing the elections.
A source close to Baabda Palace confirmed that President Michel Sleiman, who strongly opposed the Orthodox proposal, would challenge it if it was enacted by Parliament. “President Sleiman’s stance on what happened in Parliament today has been declared and repeated several times. The president rejected the Orthodox Gathering’s draft law because it contravenes the Constitution and enhances confessional and sectarian divisions,” the source told The Daily Star.
“Therefore, the president will challenge the Orthodox proposal in the Constitutional Council if it is approved by Parliament’s general assembly,” he added.
Political sources said a majority, or even a quorum, might not be secured in the general assembly to endorse the Orthodox proposal. “What happens in the joint committees may not be possible in the general assembly,” one source said.
However, a number of lawmakers said that the committees’ approval of the Orthodox proposal set the stage for serious talks on a solution to the electoral deadlock, including postponing the elections or reaching a compromise solution to the electoral law.
Hariri, the leader of the Future Movement, denounced the endorsement of the Orthodox proposal as a “black day” in the history of Parliament. “The joint committees’ approval of the Orthodox Gathering’s draft electoral law is a black day in the history of Lebanese legislative work,” Hariri tweeted.
His comments came shortly after the joint parliamentary committees, which include lawmakers from the March 8 and March 14 parties, voted to approve the second article in the Orthodox proposal, which calls for each sect to elect its own lawmakers on a proportional representation basis. They later voted on the other articles. A day earlier, the committees voted for the first article in the Orthodox proposal calling for the number of Parliament members to be increased from 128 to 134. Future MPs voted for this article.
When Tuesday’s vote began, MPs from the parliamentary Future bloc and the Progressive Socialist Party walked out of the session in protest. They were joined by March 14 MPs Butros Harb, Marwan Hamadeh, Robert Ghanem and Henry Helou. The lawmakers withdrew from the session after a request to delay a vote on the Orthodox draft was turned down.
“Democracy has triumphed over intimidation and we have endorsed the Orthodox Gathering draft law,” the FPM’s MP Alain Aoun said following the vote.
MP Ahmad Fatfat, flanked by his Future colleagues, told reporters after walking out of the session: “We withdrew from the session after our request to defer the vote on the Orthodox proposal for 48 hours was turned down.”
He added that the Future bloc was ready to continue contacts with all the parties in order to reach consensus on a hybrid vote law aimed at improving Christian representation and securing political balance.
MP Akram Shehayeb from MP Walid Jumblatt’s PSP said he pulled out of the committees’ session due to his party’s “clear stance on the Orthodox law.”
“We see in the Orthodox proposal the shortest way to political violence in the country,” he said.
The Orthodox draft, which projects Lebanon as a single district wherein each sect elects its own representatives under a proportional representation system, requires a vote in Parliament’s general assembly before it can be adopted as a voting system for the upcoming elections.
Lebanese Forces MP George Adwan and Kataeb Party MP Sami Gemayel said that the approval of the Orthodox proposal did not necessarily mean it would be used in the upcoming polls.
“The doors of communications to reach a new electoral law have not been closed and will not close,” Adwan told reporters in Parliament.
Gemayel said his party would maintain contacts to discuss the possibility of reaching a consensus-based law. “The door to consensus is still open,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Future bloc slammed the approval of the Orthodox proposal, warning that the controversial draft would destroy moderation in Lebanon.
“What some lawmakers did today in the joint committees was a black day in the history of Lebanese legislation,” the bloc said in a statement issued after its weekly meeting chaired by former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.
“The Future bloc, which has rejected this draft law, destructive for the principles of the National Pact and the foundations of coexistence, renews its rejection and condemnation of this dangerous step taken by some parties which would assassinate moderation in Lebanon, change Lebanon’s image and threaten its future, in addition to presenting the best gift to the Israeli enemy,” the statement said.
In sharp contrast, FPM leader MP Michel Aoun praised the endorsement of the Orthodox proposal as an “achievement” that would restore rights to the country’s Christians.
An overjoyed Aoun telephoned his Maronite foes, LF leader Samir Geagea, Kataeb leader Amin Gemayel, to thank them for their support for the Orthodox proposal. He also called Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai for the same purpose.
Aoun opened a bottle of champagne to celebrate the event while chairing a weekly meeting of his parliamentary Change and Reform bloc at his residence in Rabieh, north of Beirut.
“Today is the brightest day in Lebanon’s history because [Christian] rights were restored to their owners without encroaching on the rights of others,” Aoun told reporters. “The value of the vote of deprived and marginalized groups from all sects has been restored. Therefore, we are happy with this achievement.’