BEIRUT: Political differences within the parliamentary subcommittee exploring a new electoral law burst out into the open Thursday, prompting Free Patriotic Movement MP Alain Aoun to walk out of the discussions in a development that cast gloom over the panel’s role.
A member of the subcommittee, which includes lawmakers from the Hezbollah-led March 8 alliance and the opposition March 14 coalition, predicted that Friday’s would be the final session after the MPs have failed in three days of deliberations to narrow the wide gap over which legislation best guarantees fair representation in this year’s crucial parliamentary elections.
Also Thursday, Speaker Nabih Berri met with President Michel Sleiman at Baabda Palace to discuss “the current internal political developments, especially the ongoing discussions on draft electoral laws,” the state-run National News Agency reported. The meeting came ahead of a dinner hosted by Sleiman for Cypriot President Demetris Christofias.
Future bloc lawmaker MP Serge Torsarkissian, one of the four March 14 MPs on the subcommittee, said that Friday’s might be the last session before the MPs wrap up their discussions and send the results of their meetings to Berri.
“Friday’s session could be the final one. The subcommittee will discuss Friday proposals to increase the number of lawmakers and try to reach a final version of a new electoral law acceptable to all the parties before sealing the minutes of the meetings and sending them to Speaker Berri,” Torsarkissian told The Daily Star.
However, a source close to Berri said the one-week deadline set by the March 14 coalition for the subcommittee’s work could be extended in order to give another chance for the MPs to agree on a new electoral law.
“It was unrealistic to expect the subcommittee to reach an agreement on a new electoral law so soon given the wide gap between the rival factions,” the source told The Daily Star.
Torsarkissian said the subcommittee had mulled over three conflicting draft laws for this year’s polls over the past three days: The Orthodox Gathering’s proposal, which calls for every sect to elect its own MPs; a draft law presented by the Lebanese Forces and the Kataeb Party that would divide Lebanon into 50 small districts under a winner-takes-all system; and the Cabinet’s draft electoral law based on a proportional representation system with 13 medium-sized electoral districts.
When asked to sum up the outcome of the MPs’ discussions over the course of the week, Torsarkissian said: “The atmosphere within the subcommittee is going to a majority system based on small districts. The subcommittee is trying to reach an agreement on an electoral law acceptable to all the parties.”
He voiced support for the 50-district draft law, saying it can ensure the best representation for the Christians. “We are trying to reach an agreement on an election law that can unite the Lebanese and gives priority to ensuring a true representation of the Christians,” Torsarkissian added.
He criticized Aoun’s walkout of the meeting, saying this action would delay reaching an agreement on an electoral law.
His remarks came shortly after Aoun said he had suspended his participation in the subcommittee’s meetings after March 14 MPs rejected his demand to put the Orthodox electoral proposal to a Parliament vote.
“I suspended my participation in protest at [March 14 MPs’] refusal to finalize the minutes of the meeting [and refer them to Parliament] in order to highlight the draft electoral laws that have been agreed on,” Aoun told reporters after walking out of the morning session held in Parliament. Referring to the Orthodox proposal, which has won a rare Christian consensus by the four rival parties – MP Michel Aoun’s FPM, the Lebanese Forces, the Kataeb Party and Zghorta MP Suleiman Franjieh’s Marada Movement – Alain Aoun said: “There is a draft law that has gained specific majority, that is, the Orthodox Gathering’s draft law. Let this subcommittee make a recommendation to Parliament in order to vote on this proposal which, unlike other draft laws, has shattered [political] alignments.”
However, the Orthodox proposal, which projects Lebanon as one single district based on proportional representation with each sect electing its own MPs, has come under fire by some March 14 Christian politicians, the Future parliamentary bloc, and MP Walid Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party, who argued that such a law would deepen sectarian divisions in the country and allow for the rise of extremists. Sleiman has also rejected the draft law, pledging to challenge even if it is passed by Parliament.
Responding to Aoun’s demand, March 14 MP Robert Ghanem, the chairman of the subcommittee, said he would finalize and send the minutes of the discussions to Parliament after a second round of talks Thursday evening. However, no decision was taken in the evening session which was skipped by Aoun and MP Hagop Pakradounian from Michel Aoun’s parliamentary bloc.
Ghanem said the subcommittee did not continue discussion of the topics on the agenda in order to give time for contacts by the rival parties. He added that the subcommittee will meet Friday morning.
Both Future bloc MP Ahmad Fatfat and LF MP George Adwan criticized Aoun’s walkout of the meeting.
“Alain Aoun demanded that we finalize the minutes of the meeting immediately, refusing to discuss common issues among us. There was an intention to prevent any agreement and Aoun disrupted the subcommittee’s work,” said Fatfat.
Adwan said that he and Kataeb MP Sami Gemayel unsuccessfully attempted to convince Aoun to back down on his decision during a private meeting with him.
Some March 14 Christian lawmakers slammed the Orthodox proposal, saying it carried with it dangers to the presence of Christians in Lebanon.
“The approval of any electoral law based on the principle of ‘each sect elects its own MPs’ entails dangers to the [Lebanese] entity, national unity and the political system, and sets the stage for the toppling of the principle of equal power sharing between Christians and Muslims,” Batroun MP Butros Harb told a news conference after a meeting at his house in Hazmieh which was attended by six other March 14 MPs and former lawmakers from the coalition.
Harb explained that such a law would create divisions between Shiites, Sunnis and Christians as it would highlight the disparity in number among the sects. Describing the Orthodox draft law as one of the most dangerous proposals, he added that the draft was not adopted by the Maronite Church or any other Christian religious authority.
After meeting Berri in Ain al-Tineh, U.N. Special Coordinator for Lebanon Derek Plumbly told reporters: “I welcomed the resumption of the discussions among the various political parties at the Speaker’s initiative on an electoral law and I underscored the importance of the elections taking place on time.”