BEIRUT: Political rivals Sunday appeared to be locked in an indirect war of words over responsibility for failing to agree a new vote law ahead of a May 15 deadline to avert a new lengthy extension of Parliament’s term and set the stage for elections later this year.
The escalating diatribe pitting Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil, a top political aide to Speaker Nabih Berri, against Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil reflected chasm that remains between parties over what voting system to adopt for the upcoming parliamentary elections. This is despite numerous high-level meetings and behind-the-scene consultations held over the past few weeks to agree on a new electoral legislation to replace the disputed 1960 majoritarian law.
“Statements by rival factions do not indicate that any breakthrough has been made via the intensive meetings on a new electoral law,” an official source told The Daily Star Sunday.
The source said Prime Minister Saad Hariri has called for a Cabinet session to be chaired by President Michel Aoun at Baabda Palace at 2 p.m. Thursday with the issue of an electoral draft law being the top item on the agenda.
The Cabinet has not met since April 10 and Hariri had said he wanted to press the opposing parties to agree on a new electoral law that could be discussed and endorsed by the Cabinet before sending it to Parliament for final ratification.
The source referred to a meeting held by Bassil last Friday at the Foreign Ministry, which was attended by Hussein Khalil, a political aide to Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, chief of Hariri’s staff, Nader Hariri, deputy head of the Lebanese Forces, MP George Adwan, and a Progressive Socialist Party representative, MP Ghazi Aridi, that had failed to make any headway in the monthslong deadlock over a new electoral law.
Ali Hasan Khalil, who had represented the Amal Movement in talks on a new electoral law, did not attend the Foreign Ministry meeting at Berri’s request. This apparently came after Bassil, the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, was reported to have rejected Berri’s latest vote law proposal. Ali Hasan Khalil implicitly responded to Bassil Sunday who had threatened street protests by FPM supporters against attempts to extend Parliament’s mandate on May 15, when the legislative body is slated to meet to discuss extending its term for one year.
“Some are trying to search for solutions to their crises, the latest of which is the electoral law crisis. In short and honestly, we say we are concerned to search with our partners in this nation for a [vote] law that reflects the people’s will for genuine representation based on national commitment rather than on confessional and sectarian commitment,” Ali Hasan Khalil said at a ceremony marking the opening of a regional General Security branch in the southern town of Taibeh.
“While we stress our keenness to enhance ... partnership and parity, at the same time we reject all confessional and sectarian incitement that tries to provoke sensitivities to achieve private or narrow partisan gains,” he said.
Ali Hasan Khalil refuted accusations that Berri was seeking to extend Parliament’s term and warned of grave consequences entailed by any vacuum in the legislature.
“To those who mistakenly believe that we are pushing toward an extension of Parliament’s term, we frankly and bluntly say: We refuse any talk about an extension of Parliament’s term without an agreement on a new electoral law,” he said.
“Those who are threatening us with a [parliamentary] vacuum, we say to them frankly and bluntly that we are not more concerned than others with this position. The Parliament’s position preserves and guarantees the continued functioning of all constitutional institutions in the country,” Ali Hasan Khalil said. “When a vacuum occurs in Parliament, a vacuum will happen in all institutions without exception. We have to be wary of this matter because a disaster will befall the nation.”
The May 15 deadline has spurred the rival factions to step up their meetings in an attempt to reach an agreement on a new vote law to govern the upcoming elections, the first since 2009 after Parliament’s four-year mandate was extended for another full term in 2013 and 2014 combined.
Berri who, along with MP Walid Jumblatt, has rejected Bassil’s latest sectarian-based, two-stage “qualification” vote law proposal, had presented two draft laws, one for an electoral law based on complete proportionality – dividing Lebanon into 10 electoral constituencies – and another that called for the creation of a senate as stipulated by the Taif Accord.
Ali Hasan Khalil’s remarks came a day after Bassil staunchly rejected attempts to extend Parliament’s term, stressing that a new electoral law was a matter of “life or death” for the FPM. He also praised Hariri for opposing an extension of Parliament’s term.
“The issue of producing an electoral law is a matter of life or death. The Lebanese cannot live with a political death. The case of our political freedom and our political rights is the most important thing for us in this country,” Bassil said at a FPM dinner in the northern district of Batroun Saturday night. “We will not compromise over an electoral law. Our outright rejection of a [Parliamentary] extension confirms our determination to endorse an electoral law.”
Bassil added: “We thank anyone who tries to prevent the extension and we value the stance of Prime Minister Saad Hariri who is thanked by all the Lebanese who reject the extension.”
Bassil rejected accusations that the FPM was seeking to isolate or eliminate its political opponents. “We are working for the approval of a new electoral law based on understanding among all [parties] and the representation of all the Lebanese,” he said.
Former Minister Wael Abou Faour, from Jumblatt’s parliamentary Democratic Gathering bloc, reiterated the bloc’s rejection of Bassil’s qualification vote proposal and warned against voting on it in the Cabinet or Parliament.
“Voting in the Cabinet or in Parliament on an electoral law without taking into account the positions and views of political parties, be they the PSP or others, is a big adventure which we hope some will not take,” Abou Faour told a ceremony in the Chouf mountains marking the 68th anniversary of the party’s founding.
He said Aridi had relayed the PSP’s position to representatives of various parties who met at the Foreign Ministry last Friday that a new electoral law must be approved by consensus rather than by a vote.
Abou Faour lashed out at Bassil’s qualification vote proposal, saying this was entirely rejected by the PSP.
“Discussions on some electoral laws on the basis of a sectarian separation are the beginning of partition in Lebanon,” he said, clearly referring to Bassil’s proposal. “Today, we are talking about an electoral partition. Who knows, probably tomorrow we will talk about a political partition or a geographical partition.”