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Mikati backs neutral Cabinet to oversee polls

Prime Minister Najib Mikati heads a Cabinet session at the Grand Serail in Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, March 21, 2012. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

BEIRUT: Prime Minister Najib Mikati said Monday he was ready to step down to allow for the formation of a neutral Cabinet to supervise the June 9 elections, adding that he would run in the polls in his hometown of Tripoli.

In a wide-ranging interview with MTV, Mikati said that in the absence of a new voting system, his government was committed to holding the elections based on the 1960 law.

Also Monday, Washington said the elections should be held on time regardless of the voting system.

Mikati’s remarks came shortly after he and President Michel Sleiman signed a decree calling for the elections to be held on June 9.

However, a government source said the move was a routine constitutional measure and would still allow rival political leaders to agree on a new electoral law to replace the amended 1960 law used in the 2009 polls.

“I have announced previously that I am a candidate for the elections. Definitely, if the elections are held, I will not be the head of a Cabinet to conduct the elections,” Mikati said. “I am for a neutral Cabinet [to oversee the elections]. At least, the prime minister and the interior minister should not be candidates.”

Mikati, who has been in office for nearly two years, acknowledged that his government, dominated by Hezbollah and its March 8 allies, was not “homogeneous” or “coherent,” recalling differences among its members over several key issues.

He said if at any time he saw that his resignation, a major demand of the opposition March 14 coalition, would serve the country, he would step aside.

In a clear reference to MP Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement and Zghorta MP Suleiman Franjieh’s Marada Movement which supported the Orthodox Gathering’s proposal, Mikati said some parties that were represented on the Cabinet had come forward with other draft laws instead of backing the government’s own draft electoral law.

“This confirms that the Cabinet is not homogeneous. At any moment, if I found that resignation is better for the country, I will definitely resign and no-one will pressure me. But I want to know where the resignation issue will lead,” he said.

Mikati, a harsh critic of the Orthodox proposal, vowed not to allow the controversial draft to be passed in Parliament, while reiterating his support for the Cabinet’s draft law that divides Lebanon into 13 districts under a system of proportional representation.

“We are committed to the [Cabinet’s] draft law that had been sent to Parliament ... The Orthodox draft will not pass and will not even reach the Constitutional [Council] to be challenged,” he said. He added that Parliament could amend the Cabinet’s draft law, which has been rejected outright by the Future Movement and its March 14 allies as well as by Progressive Socialist Party leader MP Walid Jumblatt.

Asked to comment on his signing of a decree inviting voters to participate in the elections based on the 1960 law, Mikati said: “The 1960 law harms me personally but I am committed to it because it is a measure dictated by the law. This does not mean upholding the 1960 law. We have a law [1960 law] that is in force and we must take the constitutional procedures. I will call for the elections to be held and will continue with the procedures to the end.”

“The 1960 law is bad. I am personally against it,” he said.

The 1960 law, rejected by officials on both sides of the political divide, including the Maronite Church, adopts the qada as an electoral district and is based on a winner-takes-all system.

Likewise, the Orthodox plan, which designates Lebanon as a single electoral district in which each sect elects its own MPs through a proportional representation voting system, has deepened the political split in the country.

Earlier Monday, Sleiman “signed decree No. 9968 inviting electoral bodies in all parliamentary constituencies identified under law No. 25 dated Oct. 8, 2008 to elect members of Parliament on Sunday June 9, 2013,” according to a statement from the president’s office.

Sleiman said signing the decree did not mean elections should be held based on the 1960 law, but demonstrated the commitment to duties and responsibilities stipulated by the Constitution. “The president reiterated his previous calls to approve a new electoral law based on the draft law approved by the Cabinet which had been referred to Parliament,” the statement said.

The decree comes against the backdrop of the possibility that the polls could be delayed given rival parties’ inability to reach a consensus on a new voting system.

Meanwhile, U.S. Ambassador Maura Connelly said the elections should be held on time regardless of whether politicians reach a consensus on a new electoral law.

“If a new system cannot be agreed upon in the very near term, in our view, failure to achieve consensus on a new law does not mean parliamentary elections cannot be held on time,” Connelly told reporters after meeting Speaker Nabih Berri at his Ain al-Tineh residence. “We encourage Lebanon to hold its elections on time.”

Connelly added that Lebanon, as one of the oldest democracies in the region, should adhere to “its constitutionally mandated election schedule as one of the requirements of free and fair elections.”

“We appreciate the concerns voiced by many Lebanese that the electoral system can and should be improved. And we support efforts to reach a consensus on a new formulation that serves the fundamental Lebanese aspiration for a system that unifies the Lebanese people while respecting their various identities,” she said.

Fears the elections will be delayed have grown after rival leaders failed to agree on a new voting system.

According to Berri’s office, the speaker reiterated his position that the 1960 law had been buried and that the Lebanese were now faced with either the Orthodox plan or a new law that guaranteed sound representation and respects the Constitution.

“What is surprising is that everyone is calling for a law according to the Constitution and no one wants to apply the Constitution,” Berri was quoted as saying.

Interior Minister Marwan Charbel said stability should be given priority over holding the elections on time. “Elections can be held in a stable situation, and not vice versa,” Charbel told a news conference.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 05, 2013, on page 1.

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