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Rival MPs embark on uphill bid for consensus

  • From left, Lebanon Electricity director general Kamal Hayek, Water and Energy Minister Jibran Bassil, lawmaker Robert Ghanem and lawmaker Hikmat Dib attend a parliament session in Beirut, Lebanon. (The Daily Star)

BEIRUT: MPs from the March 8 and March 14 parties will launch attempts Tuesday to reach a consensus on a new electoral law after five days of deliberations marked by political differences over which legislation best guarantees fair representation for all sects.

The announcement, made Monday by MP Robert Ghanem, the chairman of a parliamentary subcommittee tasked with studying a new electoral law for this year’s parliamentary polls, came after the rival MPs sealed the results of the first phase of their discussions before sending them to Speaker Nabih Berri Tuesday.

“The subcommittee’s agenda contained three points divided into two stages. The first stage is related to two items: The first one is to discuss the electoral draft laws and proposals referred by the joint [parliamentary] committees to the subcommittee, and the second concerns the number of Parliament members,” Ghanem told reporters after the subcommittee’s three-hour meeting held in Parliament.

He said the second stage was to discuss reaching “a common ground” on a new electoral law. He added that the subcommittee would meet for this purpose Tuesday morning.

Ghanem said the subcommittee discussed Monday the draft report on the first stage of its deliberations, adding that the report would be presented to Berri Tuesday.

Last week, the MPs from the Hezbollah-led March 8 alliance and the opposition March 14 coalition examined three conflicting draft electoral laws for this year’s polls: a controversial proposal by the Orthodox Gathering, 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 based on a proportional representation system with 13 medium-sized electoral districts.

They also discussed proposals to increase the number of Parliament members to allot seats for Lebanese expatriates. Political sources said most of the subcommittee’s nine members – four March 8 MPs and four March 14 MPs, in addition to Progressive Socialist Party’s MP Akram Shehayeb – backed a proposal to increase the number of Parliament members from 128 to 134. Also, six MPs out of the nine subcommittee members supported the Orthodox electoral proposal, which has triggered a nationwide heated controversy and has been rejected by President Michel Sleiman, the Future Movement, PSP leader Walid Jumblatt and some March 14 Christian politicians who warned that the draft would sharpen sectarian divisions and encourage the rise of extremists.

Monday’s meeting was attended by Free Patriotic Movement’s MP Alain Aoun, who suspended his participation in the subcommittee’s talks last week after March 14 lawmakers rejected his demand to refer the Orthodox proposal to a Parliament vote.

“We approved today the minutes of the eight meetings. We have all agreed to the sealed minutes and we will present it to Speaker Nabih Berri. We will then continue discussing the remaining topics in order to reach common denominators,” Aoun told reporters after the meeting.

He added that the outcome of the subcommittee’s discussions has been written down and signed. “No one can distance himself from it,” Aoun said.

Hezbollah’s MP Ali Fayyad said the subcommittee’s work in the second stage would be backed by political parties represented in the subcommittee in order to reach a common ground on a new electoral law.

MP Shehayeb said: “From now on, serious work will concentrate on common denominators and this is the most important thing.”

Ghanem, from the March 14 coalition, has also rejected the Orthodox proposal, which sets Lebanon as a single district based on proportional representation with each sect electing its own MPs.

The proposal has won an unprecedented Christian consensus by the four rival Maronite parties: The Lebanese Forces, the Kataeb Party, MP Michel Aoun’s FPM and Zghorta MP Suleiman Franjieh’s Marada Movement.

The leaders of the four parties have fully supported the Orthodox draft as the best formula to ensure a true representation of Christians in this year’s elections, which are scheduled for early June.

Meanwhile, Jumblatt, who has rejected both the Orthodox proposal and the government’s proportional representation draft law, called for the establishment of a Lebanese senate as stipulated by the 1989 Taif Accord.

He scoffed at the current heated debate over a new electoral law, saying it was part of “unprecedented isolationist outbiddings that would leave extremely negative reverberations at more than one level.”

“Why don’t we cause a positive shock and leap into a Lebanese qualitative election spring by freeing Parliament from sectarian representation as stipulated by the Taif Accord and move to establish a senate in which all Lebanese components are represented?” Jumblatt said in his weekly article to be published by the PSP’s weekly Al-Anbaa newspaper Tuesday.

He added that among the senate’s main prerogatives would be to address major national issues and try to allay the concerns and fears of the feuding parties.

Jumblatt called for the adoption of an electoral law that enhances unity, rather than deepens sectarian divisions.

Implicitly slamming the Orthodox proposal, the PSP leader said: “It is time for the Lebanese to have an electoral law that brings them together instead of seeking proposals that increase their sectarian and confessional divisions and take them back to past centuries.”

However, Kataeb MP Sami Gemayel, a member of the parliamentary subcommittee, defended the Orthodox draft law, but said his party was open to discussing other electoral proposals.

Speaking at a news conference before attending the subcommittee’s meeting in Parliament, he said the Christians would no longer accept bring marginalized in the country’s political decision-making as had happened over the past 23 years.

“We will not accept to be imposed on us after 23 years laws that do not ensure partnership and equal power sharing and our representation to be as it is today,” Gemayel said.

“We are open to solutions. We don’t want to impose anything on anyone. But we will not accept after 23 years laws to be imposed on us that marginalize the Christians,” he said.

Responding to Jumblatt and other politicians who have criticized the Christian parties for upholding the Orthodox proposal, Gemayel said: “We wish that Walid Beik will realize that the current [electoral] law is unjust and instead of accusing us, let him find a solution to this crisis.”

“We will not accept a return to the zero point ... No one must think that we will accept for a minute the 1960 law,” Gemayel said.

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. The law has been rejected by officials on both sides of the political divide.

Also Monday, independent March 14 Christian lawmakers and politicians reiterated their rejection of the Orthodox proposal.

In a statement issued after their meeting at the house of Batroun MP Butros Harb, the second in less than a week, the lawmakers praised the terse statement issued after a meeting of rival Maronite leaders in Bkirki last Friday in which they called for adopting an electoral law that provides fair representation for all sects.

“There are several alternatives to the current [1960] other than the Orthodox proposal that can ensure a true representation and safeguard the unity of Lebanon and the Lebanese, particularly the unity of Christians,” the March 14 MPs said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 15, 2013, on page 1.
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