BEIRUT: Former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said Sunday he plans to meet Speaker Nabih Berri soon to explore a new electoral law after the controversial Orthodox proposal stirred a political storm in the country, and even caused a split within the opposition March 14 coalition.
The Berri-Siniora meeting was seen as an attempt to break the current deadlock over which legislation best guarantees fair representation for all sects in this year’s crucial parliamentary elections.
“The channels of communications are open with Speaker Berri. Efforts are under way to meet Speaker Berri either this or next week to discuss a new election law,” Siniora told The Daily Star.
He said other main issues, including the formation of a new Cabinet to oversee this year’s crucial parliamentary elections, would be discussed during the meeting with Berri, the second to be held between the speaker and the head of the parliamentary Future bloc in two months.
Siniora reiterated the Future bloc’s rejection of both the Orthodox proposal and the government’s draft electoral law, which is based on a proportional representation system with 13 medium-sized electoral districts.
“We have rejected the Orthodox draft law for several reasons, mainly because it contravenes the Taif Accord and the Constitution,” Siniora said, adding that the Future bloc did not oppose the “small district draft law.”
He was referring to the draft law put forward to Parliament by the Lebanese Forces and the Kataeb Party that would divide Lebanon into 50 small districts under a winner-takes-all system. The Hezbollah-led March 8 alliance and the PSP have rejected the 50-district draft law.
Siniora’s remarks came as the country reeled under a nationwide heated controversy sparked by the Orthodox Gathering’s electoral proposal, which projects Lebanon as one single district based on proportional representation with each sect electing its own MPs.
Although it has won an unprecedented Christian consensus by the four rival Maronite parties, the Orthodox proposal has drawn fire from the Future Movement, Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt and some March 14 Christian politicians who warned that the draft would deepen sectarian divisions and encourage the rise of extremists in the country. President Michel Sleiman has also rejected the proposal, vowing to challenge it if it was enacted by Parliament.
Since delegates of the four rival Maronite parties: the LF, the Kataeb Party, MP Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement and Zghorta MP Suleiman Franjieh’s Marada Movement adopted the Orthodox proposal during a meeting chaired by Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai in Bkirki two weeks ago, the parties’ leaders have fully supported the draft as the best means to ensure a true representation of Christians in this year’s elections, which are scheduled for early June.
March 8 parliamentary sources said that the elections would be held on time if the political parties agreed on a new electoral law. However, the sources voiced fears that reaching such a law would not be easy and would probably be preceded by a more complicated crisis than the current one that would pave the way for an agreement on an electoral law.
Postponement of the elections carries with it problems which Lebanon is unable to endure under the current internal and regional circumstances, they said.
Siniora warned that if the government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati stayed in office to oversee the elections, “this would be a bad thing and the government’s performance would be challenged.”
Despite the widespread opposition it has evoked, officials of the LF and the FPM defended the Orthodox proposal as the best draft to ensure a true Christian representation.
The Maronite Church and other Christian parties have long complained that many Christian MPs had been elected by Muslim voters under the 1960 electoral law.
Chouf’s LF MP George Adwan said the four Maronite parties upheld their support for the Orthodox proposal in the absence of alternative draft laws that can ensure a better Christian representation. “We support the Orthodox Gathering’s proposal while we are ready to consider other alternatives that can ensure a true representation,” he told MTV Sunday night.
Zahle’s LF Joseph Maalouf said his party supported the Orthodox proposal if it won consensus from the rival political factions and took into consideration the concerns and reservations voiced by Sleiman and some parties.
“The Lebanese Forces supports its draft electoral law for 50 small districts and the Orthodox proposal if it wins consensus,” Maalouf told The Daily Star.
He dismissed as “not very precise” reports that LF leader Samir Geagea was not happy with the terse statement issued after a surprise meeting attended by rival Christian leaders in Bkirki Friday in which they called for adopting an electoral law that provides fair representation for all sects. The statement was viewed as a retreat from their support for the Orthodox electoral proposal.
Geagea was absent from the meeting chaired by Rai and attended by Aoun, former President Amin Gemayel, the head of the Kataeb Party, and Franjieh.
Maalouf said the terse statement issued after the meeting would open the door for “searching for an electoral law that can satisfy all the parties, while taking into account the concerns and reservations raised over the Orthodox proposal.”
Earlier Sunday, Energy Minister Gebran Bassil from the FPM defended the Orthodox proposal, saying the draft ensures a true Christian representation. He also lashed out at the Future Movement, accusing it of rejecting the formula of real power-sharing between Muslims and Christians.
“The Orthodox Gathering’s draft law is our only proposal. There will be no return to the 1960 law no matter what happens. We will not accept any law that does not ensure in reality equal power-sharing [between Muslims and Christians],” Bassil told a news conference at his residence in Rabieh, north of Beirut.
Taking an indirect swipe at Sleiman and Jumblatt, who are known for their centrist attitudes and who have rejected the Orthodox proposal, Bassil said: “The aim of centrism is to have a tilting bloc that can grant majority to this or that party.”
Also Sunday, Rai urged politicians to rid themselves of their personal and party interests and work to draft a new electoral law replacing the 1960 law. The 1960 law, which adopts the qada as an electoral district and is based on a winner-takes-all system, was used in the 2009 parliamentary elections.
“What is needed is to reach an election law that ensures the best, fairest and safest representation for all Lebanese sects whereby each Lebanese citizen can exercise his right to elect his representative freely and responsibly,” Rai said in his Sunday sermon in Bkirki.
Meanwhile, MP Robert Ghanem, the chairman of a parliamentary subcommittee studying a new electoral law, said the Orthodox proposal contravened the Constitution. “The Christian parties are not convinced of the Orthodox Gathering’s draft law as a future law for Lebanon, but they will vote for it if it were put for a vote,” Ghanem told the Voice of Lebanon radio station.
The subcommittee, which includes MPs from the March 8 and March 14 parties, will conclude talks Monday after approving the minutes of four days of deliberations last week.
FPM’s MP Alain Aoun, who suspended his participation in the subcommittee’s meetings last week, said he will attend Monday’s session.
Speaking to The Daily Star, Aoun said his decision to walk out of last week’s meeting was coordinated with FPM leader Michel Aoun. He said he was confident that the Kataeb and the LF will not back down from the agreement reached during the subcommittee’s meetings on the Orthodox proposal, which won the majority of the subcommittee’s members.
“What is required today is to refer the [subcommittee’s] minutes, which are expected to be endorsed by the joint committees, to the [Parliament’s] general assembly to vote on it,” Aoun said.
March 8 parliamentary sources said that the Christian parties, which were hesitant in voicing their support for the Orthodox proposal, cannot back down because opinion polls showed sweeping support by the Christians for this proposal.