Hussein Dakroub| The Daily Star
BEIRUT: Officials raced against time Sunday to make a breakthrough in the monthslong deadlock over a new electoral law in a desperate attempt to prevent the country from falling into a parliamentary crisis.
The stepped-up flurry of political activity came on the eve of a crucial Cabinet session designed to reach consensus between the rival factions on a new voting system to govern the upcoming parliamentary elections.
A high-ranking Hezbollah delegation met Sunday evening with President Michel Aoun at Baabda Palace and presented him with a proportional vote proposal aimed at narrowing the gap between rivals over a new electoral law to replace the disputed 1960 majoritarian system used in the last elections in 2009.
No details emerged of Hezbollah’s proposal, which has apparently failed to make any breakthrough in the electoral law stalemate, political sources said.
Hezbollah delegation members did not speak to reporters following the meeting, which was also attended by Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement.
The delegation included Hezbollah’s deputy leader, Sheikh Naim Qassem, Hussein Khalil, a top political aide to the party’s leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, MP Mohammad Raad and Wafic Safa, the group’s senior security official.
The Baabda talks came two days after Bassil had met with Prime Minister Saad Hariri in Parliament Friday evening as part of ongoing consultations between the FPM and the Future Movement to reach agreement on new voting legislation. Last month, Bassil unveiled the FPM’s latest hybrid vote law proposal, which also failed to break the deadlock.
Speaker Nabih Berri has vowed to prevent the country from descending into parliamentary vacuum before the legislature’s term expires on June 20.
In the absence of an agreement on a new vote law, Berri plans to convene a Parliament session to approve a new extension of the body’s term, parliamentary sources said.
“If the Cabinet does not reach agreement on an electoral law before April 15, Parliament will meet to endorse an extension of necessity in order to avert the country falling into parliamentary vacuum,” a parliamentary source told The Daily Star.
Noting that Parliament’s current legislative round ends at the end of May and its mandate, which was extended in 2013 and 2014, expires on June 20, the source expected a new extension of the body’s term for about six months.
Berri, Hariri and Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk have spoken a “technical” extension of Parliament’s term, saying this was needed to finalize logistical preparations for the elections. Parliamentary elections were originally scheduled to take place between May 21 and June 21, but the continued deadlock over a vote law would lead to a delay of the polls.
Hariri has called for a special Cabinet session at 11 a.m. Monday at Baabda Palace to be chaired by Aoun and devoted to exploring and approving a new electoral law, which is a top item in the government’s policy statement.
Ministerial sources said the Cabinet would not be able to make any breakthrough in the vote law impasse in one session.
“The Cabinet will not discuss a specific electoral proposal tomorrow [Monday]. Discussions will be open to several vote proposals. An issue of such importance requires several sessions,” Ali Qanso, the minister of state for parliamentary affairs, told The Daily Star.
Qanso, who represents the Syrian Social Nationalist Party in the Cabinet, said he did not expect Aoun or Hariri to present any specific vote law proposal. He added that the SSNP, like Hezbollah and the Amal Movement, supported a vote law based on full proportional representation regardless of the number of electoral districts.
Hezbollah MP Hasan Fadlallah said this week would be “crucial” in reaching a deal over a new electoral law. “We are consulting with our allies, mainly the Free Patriotic Movement, to reach consensus on a new electoral law,” Fadlallah told The Daily Star.
“Full-fledged proportionality is the best vote law proposal that can ensure true and genuine representation for all the parties.”
He noted that chances of reaching an agreement on a vote law have been enhanced following Hariri’s declaration last week that his Future Movement was ready to accept a vote law based on full proportional representation.
In a speech in the southern town of Bint Jbeil, Fadlallah warned that if this week, “which is tied to a constitutional and legal deadline,” passed without rivals agreeing on a new electoral law, “we might reach a fatal vacuum which would lead to fatal consequences and the erosion of all branches of power.”
On another topic, Fadlallah said a new round of talks between senior officials of the Future Movement and Hezbollah would be held at Berri’s Ain al-Tineh residence Monday evening.
“The meeting will discuss the latest developments in Lebanon, but a new electoral law will figure high in the talks,” Fadlallah, one of three officials representing the party in the ongoing dialogue with the Future Movement, told The Daily Star. The two rival parties have been engaged in bilateral dialogue for more than a year aimed at defusing sectarian and political tensions, exacerbated by the 6-year-old war in Syria.
Meanwhile, former Minister Wael Abu Faour from MP Walid Jumblatt’s parliamentary Democratic Gathering bloc warned the Cabinet against voting on an electoral law, saying this would further deepen political divisions in the country. He said that rivals should reach a consensus on a new vote law.
“Voting on an electoral law in the Cabinet should be avoided. ... Some sides might be forced to make difficult choices,” Abu Faour said during the inauguration of a medical center in the western Bekaa town of Rashaya. “Unfortunately, some are forgetting that there’s a current electoral law. The 1960 vote law is [unpopular] ... but it exists. Why are they completely ignoring it?”
Abu Faour said that his bloc was seeking to push for holding the elections, whether based on the 1960 vote law or a new law that legislators agree on. He expressed skepticism that Monday’s Cabinet session would lead to concrete results as it remains unclear which vote law proposal it will discuss.
In a speech in Parliament last Friday, Hariri underlined the importance of consensus over a new electoral law. His remarks appear to rule out the prospect of voting either in the Cabinet or in Parliament on a new vote law proposal to avoid divisions.
Berri has also warned that voting on several draft electoral laws in Parliament would spark “a civil war” in the country.
For his part, Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai again appealed to rival factions to agree on a new electoral law. “We call on politicians to assume their duties as dictated by their responsibilities [as lawmakers] ... to enact a new law for parliamentary elections to be tailored to serve the people and the nation, rather than political feudalism and the interests of influential people bent on a policy of elimination, suppressing the free vote and stabbing democracy,” Rai said in a Palm Sunday Mass in Bkirki, north of Beirut.