BEIRUT: Although many consider it a tactical move, the backing of a controversial electoral draft law by the Lebanese Forces and the Kataeb Party has widened a schism in the eight-year old March 14 alliance.
“It’s obvious that we are facing a real crisis here,” said Samir Franjieh, a former MP and one of the founding fathers of the alliance, who argues that a new political landscape is emerging in Lebanon.
“Within March 14, the debate currently revolves around fundamental and systemic matters and this is where the crisis, which is actually a serious one, stems from,” he added.
The Lebanese Forces and the Kataeb Party staggered their allies in March 14 when they voiced unequivocal support for a draft electoral law devised by a group of Orthodox figures.
The so-called Orthodox Gathering Proposal stipulates that each sect elect its own lawmakers through proportional representation, with Lebanon considered a single electoral district.
The draft has also won the backing of the pillars of the March 8 alliance, including the Free Patriotic Movement, the Marada Movement and their allies, the Shiite duo Hezbollah and the Amal Movement.
Proponents of the proposal maintain that contrary to the winner-takes-all law – commonly referred to as the 1960 law and according to which the 2009 polls were conducted – the Orthodox formula guarantees maximum representation for Christians, who will have a greater say in choosing their representatives.
But the Future Movement and independent Christian figures in March 14 argue that the controversial draft law is unconstitutional and would deepen sectarian divisions in the country.
A senior source from the March 14 alliance who wished to remain anonymous told The Daily Star that the LF and Kataeb’s endorsement of the Orthodox proposal was part of a “tactical strategy” to ensure better representation in a new Parliament.
According to the source, both parties still support a draft law the LF originally proposed and the rest of March 14 later endorsed after much deliberation. In this “small-districts proposal,” Lebanon would be divided into 50 small districts, with each district receiving two or three seats.
The source argued that the LF and the Kataeb made an “extreme” choice by backing the Orthodox proposal as a maneuvering technique to garner more MPs.
“Whether it’s the Orthodox proposal or small districts, they [LF and Kataeb] they don’t care; they just want more MPs,” added the source. “All means are legitimate to serve that purpose.”
Yet the source expressed discontent with the “tactics” of the two most influential March 14 Christian groups, saying the LF and the Kataeb “favored purely sectarian interests at the expense of those of the alliance they are part of.”
“Even the LF and the Kataeb’s endorsement of the Orthodox proposal was a tactical move; it was highly costly for the March 14 coalition as a whole,” said the source.
Fadia Kiwan, the head of the Political Science Department at Saint Joseph University (USJ), believes that the Orthodox proposal was intended to “test the intentions” of various groups regarding a new electoral law.
“I don’t think the Orthodox proposal will be adopted,” she said. “The Orthodox proposal is being strongly promoted to pressure March 14 into finding alternatives to the 1960 law.”
Mohammad Shatah, an adviser to Future Movement leader and former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, accused the March 8 alliance of working on creating divisions among allies in the March 14.
He added that Hezbollah and the FPM were “sugar coating” the real motives behind the Orthodox proposal by publicizing the belief that it ensures fairer representation for Christians. But in reality, Shatah continued, the proposal would have detrimental repercussions on unity and coexistence in Lebanon.
“Hezbollah and the FPM want to instigate strife within the March 14 forces and instigate appalling sectarian sentiments,” he said.
Kiwan maintained that splits that surfaced among the March 14 as a result of the debate on the new electoral law clearly denote that the Future Movement has refused that its influence or authority within March 14 be breached.
“This whole debate showed us that there is no real parity between Christians and Muslims and that other sects including the Sunnis, the Shiites and the Druze chose the majority of Christian lawmakers,” she said.
The analyst, who is convinced that the 2013 parliamentary polls will not be held on time due to the situation in the region, argued that if elections were carried out, they would take place according to an “amended” version of the electoral law proposal submitted by the Cabinet of Prime Minister Najib Mikati.
Frowned upon by the March 14 alliance as well as by Progressive Socialist Party leader MP Walid Jumblatt, the Cabinet’s law is proportional representation-based and divides Lebanon into 13 electoral districts.
The Cabinet’s draft law is also considered the brainchild of President Michel Sleiman, who opposes the Orthodox proposal.
“In the end, if elections are to take place,” said Kiwan, “an amended version of the Cabinet’s draft law, one that would please Jumblatt and March 14, will be adopted.”
But Kiwan, who admitted that discord within March 14 was becoming more and more tangible, is not of the opinion that the demise of the alliance is nearing.
Franjieh and Shatah agree with her assessment. Although he said that the future of the coalition is at stake, Franjieh pointed out that divisions within March 14 are of “ideological rather than sectarian nature.”
As opposed to LF and Kataeb lawmakers, Franjieh, Batroun MP Butros Harb and other independent Christian figures of the March 14 have launched vehement attacks against the Orthodox proposal.
Shatah, for his part, said the Orthodox law stands against the “secular principles” of the Future Movement and March 14.
Echoing Shatah, Franjieh said that the new political landscape emerging in Lebanon requires all groups to rethink their positions. “The future of the March 14 coalition is really hard to predict at this moment,” he added. “But if sectarian interests are going to take over, the principles upon which the coalition was established will cease to exist.”