BEIRUT: President Michel Sleiman’s decree calling for the parliamentary elections to be held on time threw the Cabinet into disarray Tuesday as ministers quarreled over the move, with some saying it was aimed at holding the polls based on the 1960 law.
The signing of the decree also sparked the ire of Speaker Nabih Berri, according to sources close to him, and drew fire from lawmakers from MP Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, Hezbollah, the Amal Movement and Zghorta MP Suleiman Franjieh’s Marada Movement, which blasted the move as “a black day” in the history of the executive branch.
The confusion stirred by the decree, which was also signed by Prime Minister Najib Mikati Monday, has cast gloom over the possibility of holding the June 9 elections on time, let alone reaching a consensus on a new electoral law to replace the 1960 law, which has been rejected by leaders on both sides of the political divide.A heated debate erupted during Tuesday’s Cabinet session over the decree calling for the parliamentary elections to be held on June 9.
During the session, chaired by Sleiman at Baabda Palace, ministers from the FPM, Hezbollah and Amal argued that the measure would resurrect the 1960 law, Baabda sources said.
“It is a black day in the history of the executive branch,” FPM MP Ibrahim Kanaan told reporters after the MPs met in Parliament. He called for adopting the Orthodox proposal as a new electoral law.
Health Minister Ali Hasan Khalil, from Speaker Nabih Berri’s Amal Movement, said the move represented an attempt to resurrect the 1960 law: “Signing the decree is an attempt to revive the 1960 law, which was buried a long time ago.”
“We might as well appoint the members to Parliament,” Youth and Sports Minister Faisal Karami, speaking ahead of the Cabinet session, said in a sarcastic tone.
However, Social Affairs Minister Wael Abu Faour, from MP Walid Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party, praised the move as a normal procedure for holding the polls on time. “Signing the decree was the right thing to do, unless some parties have the intention of postponing the elections,” he said.
Sleiman, in turn, defended his decision, saying he was merely fulfilling his constitutional duty, the sources said.
Information Minister Walid Daouk acknowledged the split within the Cabinet, saying that Sleiman and Mikati had explained that the signing of the decree was “a constitutional and legal matter.”
“The participants affirmed the respect of the constitutional deadline to hold the elections based on a new law that ensures true representation by respecting the principle of equal power sharing [between Muslims and Christians] consecrated in the Constitution,” Kanaan said.
Political sources said that while the scenario of extending the term of the incumbent Parliament until an accord is reached over a new electoral law was still the most viable option, Berri was still optimistic that rival groups would regain a “wise” attitude and agree on a new electoral law.
Sources close to Berri told The Daily Star that he had approved of a March 8 lawmaker’s plan – in response to Sleiman’s move – to press the speaker to put the Orthodox Gathering proposal to a vote in Parliament’s general assembly after it had been approved by the joint parliamentary committees.
“Several ministers had their say on the signing of the electoral decree, but the president and the prime minister stressed that the 1960 law was clinically dead but remained valid until it was time to bury it completely,” Daouk told reporters after the meeting.
Asked whether the signing of the decree meant a return to the 1960 law, Daouk said: “In principle, no. God willing, we will not reach this result. The president and the prime minister have affirmed that discussions are under way to find an alternative electoral law, especially since the Cabinet had presented a draft law that was referred to Parliament.”
The Baabda sources said during the Cabinet meeting that both Sleiman and Mikati had stressed that the decision to sign the electoral decree did not preclude the possibility of lawmakers agreeing on a new electoral proposal.
Sleiman is pushing for a consensus among the political parties over a new modern electoral law, a Baabda source said.
“The consensus on an electoral law will be followed by the formation of a new Cabinet to supervise the elections and the revival of the National Dialogue Committee,” the source said.
He stressed the need for an agreement on an electoral law before March 20 to allow the Interior Ministry to finalize logistical preparations for the parliamentary elections.
The signing of 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, the parliamentary Future bloc renewed its call for the formation of a neutral Cabinet to oversee the polls, saying it would work toward agreement on a new electoral law.
“We are open to dialogue on any law that represents a solution to the current crisis,” the bloc said in a statement issued after its weekly meeting. It expressed hope that efforts made by the concerned parties would lead to a legal formula that secures “the interests of everyone and protects the freedom and justness of choice and true representation.”
“However, such a solution can be reached only through [the formation of] a neutral Cabinet,” it added. – Additional reporting by Antoine Ghattas Saab