BEIRUT: Lebanese leaders intensified contacts Wednesday in a bid to achieve consensus over a new electoral law, as a source close to Speaker Nabih Berri said he would not call Parliament to vote on the controversial Orthodox proposal.
Separately, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said during talks with Prime Minister Najib Mikati at the Grand Serail that the U.K. would continue to support stability in Lebanon.
Hague, who arrived in Lebanon Wednesday, said he would visit the Army Command Thursday to highlight Britain’s support to the military.
The British official said his country would make efforts to encourage donor states to give Lebanon a significant share to ease the difficulties faced by Syrian refugees.
“The U.K. is backing stability and a peaceful future for your vibrant, resilient country,” he posted on Twitter. Hague will meet President Michel Sleiman and other officials Thursday.
Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt discussed, over the phone, the approval of the Orthodox proposal Tuesday by Parliament’s joint committees.
“They emphasized their converging positions on the issue and the need to pursue consultations about it,” said a statement by Hariri’s press office.
Hariri also brought up developments related to elections in separate phone calls with Kataeb leader Amin Gemayel and Lebanese Forces head Samir Geagea.
Future Movement MP Ahmad Fatfat told The Daily Star the discussions between Hariri, Geagea and Gemayel had been frank.
For their part, Gemayel and Geagea discussed the electoral law in a lengthy phone conversation Wednesday
The subject was also discussed by Berri and Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun, who visited the speaker at his Ain al-Tineh residence.
A source close to Berri told The Daily Star that during the meeting Aoun had said if consensus was achieved on a draft law better than the Orthodox proposal, then he would have no problem supporting it.
The source added the talks had been in line with Berri’s efforts to help rival groups reach consensus on a voting system. “Speaker Berri will only call for a Parliament session to discuss a consensus draft electoral law, which according to him, is the law he proposed: half of the MPs would be elected based on a winner-takes-all system and the other half based on proportional representation,” the source said.
“When Speaker Berri feels that there is consensus, he will call Parliament to convene to discuss a consensus draft law, but not the Orthodox proposal,” he said. After the meeting, Aoun told reporters that if another draft law that offered fair representation for all sects was not passed, he would support the Orthodox plan.
“Speaker Berri is a decision-maker who gives everyone enough time ... but if he finds the way [to reaching a consensus] is blocked, he will make a decision,” Aoun added. “We took nothing, we restored our rights without taking the rights of anybody,” he said of the Orthodox proposal’s approval.
Lawmakers in Parliament’s joint committees approved Tuesday the Orthodox proposal, which considers Lebanon as a single district where each sect elects its own MPs under a system of proportional representation.
The move further divided political groups, with Future Movement and PSP lawmakers withdrawing from the session ahead of the vote. The Kataeb Party, Lebanese Forces, Free Patriotic Movement, Hezbollah, Amal Movement and Marada Movement lawmakers voted for the proposal.
President Michel Sleiman has said he would challenge the Orthodox plan before the Constitutional Council if it is approved by Parliament, a necessary step before it becomes law.
Issam Suleiman, the head of the Constitutional Council, told The Daily Star that any law could be challenged 15 days after it is endorsed by Parliament and published in the official gazette. The president, speaker or 10 MPs could hypothetically challenge the law. If the challenge is approved by at least seven out of the 10-member Council body, it would become effective, Suleiman added.
Mikati also reiterated his opposition to the Orthodox proposal. “From the first moment, we expressed our reservations over the Orthodox proposal because we support agreement on any electoral law that enhances integration among the Lebanese rather than divides them,” Mikati posted on his Twitter account.
“We stick to the draft law which the government referred to Parliament or any other law that unites rather than divides the Lebanese,” the prime minister added.
Jumblatt slammed the Orthodox proposal, saying it left the Lebanese society in tatters and created isolationism within sects.
“This draft law shreds the Lebanese society into pieces and brings us back to right-wing isolationism, which only some Christians are part of ... President Michel Sleiman and MP Butros Harb had a great and honorable stance [against it],” Jumblatt told an interview with a local TV station. He said the Orthodox proposal would “abolish partnership between Lebanese sects.”
“If there are minorities that want to be fairly represented, let them be fairly represented, but we cannot disregard demographic factors at every moment because minorities like Christians are decreasing in number and the number of Muslims is rising,” he said.
The PSP leader wondered why political groups ignore the fact that a senate with considerable power could be formed in which all sects would be represented and a Parliament functioning in a nonconfessional basis could be elected.
Jumblatt expressed concern that current circumstances were pushing toward passing the Orthodox proposal.
Finance Minister Mohammad Safadi urged in a statement that Sleiman and Berri announce a “state of political emergency” that brings Lebanese to a dialogue and allows them to discuss the concerns of various sects.
Future Movement lawmaker Ammar Houri told a local TV station that after joint committees approved the Orthodox proposal, elections have no chance of being held on time.
For his part, Batroun MP Butros Harb said if the Orthodox proposal was referred to Parliament, it would cause a confrontation to break out there and elections would not be held on time, adding that the law would make Christians leave Lebanon.
United Nations Special Coordinator for Lebanon Derek Plumbly reiterated that holding elections on time was important for Lebanon’s stability. “We still believe that holding free and fair elections within the constitutional and legal timeframe is important for democracy and stability in Lebanon. We encourage all political parties in Lebanon to make every effort to achieve consensus on a new electoral law,” Plumbly told reporters after holding talks with Gemayel.