BEIRUT: Prime Minister Saad Hariri, accompanied by the deputy chief of the Lebanese Forces, held crucial talks with Speaker Nabih Berri Sunday night but there was no major breakthrough in the monthslong deadlock over a new electoral law to avert a much-feared vacuum in Parliament before its term expires next month.
The only tangible outcome of the meeting was that Berri postponed until May 29 Monday’s Parliament session that was originally scheduled to extend the legislative body’s term for one year.
The nearly three-hour meeting held at Berri’s Ain al-Tineh residence, which included a dinner banquet, was attended by MP George Adwan, the LF’s deputy chief, who has been instrumental in shuttling between Berri, Hariri and Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil in a bid to reach a unified vote law formula to govern the upcoming parliamentary elections.
Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil, a top political aide to Berri, and Nader Hariri, chief of the premier’s staff, were also present.
The talks centered on Berri’s latest proportional vote law proposal, which was apparently floated to counter Bassil’s sectarian-based two-stage “qualification” vote law plan that has drawn opposition from the speaker, MP Walid Jumblatt’s bloc and the Lebanese Forces.
NBN channel, which is affiliated with the Parliament speaker, said that the majority of political blocs had agreed to Berri’s proposal, even though they laced their final approval with a desire to increase the number of six electoral constituencies suggested by Berri.
Berri had threatened to withdraw his proposal unless an agreement on a vote law was reached before May 15. The speaker has presented two draft laws, one for an electoral law based on complete proportionality, dividing Lebanon into six electoral constituencies, and another calling for the creation of a senate as stipulated by the Taif Accord.
The Ain al-Tineh gathering was preceded by another important meeting hosted by Hariri at his Downtown residence soon after his return from Qatar, where he attended the Doha Forum and held talks with Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. The meeting was attended by Bassil, the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, Adwan and Nader Hariri.
Berri, who has repeatedly said he opposed a new extension of Parliament’s mandate, which expires on June 20, has vowed not to hold Monday’s session unless there is an agreement on a new vote law.
In order to give rivals more time to agree on a new vote law, President Michel Aoun is widely expected to issue a decree opening an extraordinary parliamentary session that begins on June 1 and ends on June 19. Parliament’s ordinary session expires on May 31.
Ahead of the Ain al-Tineh meeting, Berri said that the fate of Monday’s Parliament session would be decided in light of the outcome of his talks with Hariri.
“I hope that the meeting [with Hariri] will be positive. If it’s positive, this will facilitate things a lot, and we can make a minor session postponement,” Berri was quoted as telling visitors to Ain al-Tineh. “But if the meeting is negative, God forbid, I will do the normal thing, which is to set a date for another session.” Noting that Monday is the final deadline for accepting his vote proposal, Berri said: “I have done my duty and let them search for another [vote law] proposal. There are several proposals for proportionality. Let them search for the most appropriate.”
Addressing Amal Movement officials in the German capital Berlin by telephone earlier in the day, Berri stressed that a new electoral law should be “dissociated from confessionalism and sectarianism and it must take steps toward the future of this country.”
For his part, Hariri vowed to reach agreement on a new electoral law, saying failing to do so would be tantamount to the failure of his government. “I have repeatedly said that if we were unable to endorse a new electoral law within the remaining constitutional deadline, I would consider that the government has failed,” Hariri said in a wide-ranging interview with the Qatari newspaper Al-Sharq.
“There is still a chance to avert entering into a crisis of parliamentary vacuum,” he said, adding that he was making efforts to narrow differences and reconcile viewpoints among all the parties.
“I can confirm that there are positive elements on which we can build to reach an electoral law on which the parties eventually agree,” Hariri said. “The best solution is by reaching a [vote] law by consensus. That’s what we are working to achieve.”
MP Ibrahim Kanaan, FPM secretary, joined Hezbollah officials in expressing optimism that an accord on an electoral law would be reached before June 19.
“I see that we will have a new electoral law before June 19,” Kanaan told MTV. “There is a serious chance to produce a new electoral law. ... We hope that there will be no political obstruction.”
A senior Hezbollah official sounded upbeat that a new electoral law based on complete proportionality would be endorsed soon. “We will see in the next few days an electoral law based on full proportionality adopted in Lebanon,” MP Mohammad Raad, head of Hezbollah’s 13-member bloc in Parliament, said at a ceremony in the southern town of Nabatieh.
Despite lingering differences over the number and size of electoral constituencies, the main political parties are in agreement that proportionality should be the basis of any law to replace the disputed 1960 majoritarian system used in the last parliamentary elections in 2009.
Meanwhile, the Cabinet is scheduled to meet at 11 a.m. Wednesday at the Grand Serail to discuss a host of economic and financial topics, a source at Baabda Palace told The Daily Star. An electoral draft law is not listed on the Cabinet agenda, the source said.He added that Hariri had met with Aoun Saturday, discussing with him the Cabinet session agenda as well as his trip to Qatar to attend the Doha Forum.
Aoun and Hariri also discussed ongoing efforts to agree on a new electoral law, the source said.
Separately, some 100 civil society activists demonstrated outside the Beirut Municipality to protest a new extension of Parliament’s term, calling on politicians to endorse a new vote law based on proportional representation.
They carried placards reading: “No to extension, yes to proportionality.” Addressing the 128 lawmakers, one placard read: “Your term has expired.”