SUN 5 - 2 - 2023
Date: Nov 26, 2020
Source: The Daily Star

Folder: Elections
Lebanon: Sectarian tensions rise over forensic audit, election law proposals
Hussein Dakroub| The Daily Star
BEIRUT: Divisions among parliamentary blocs over a forensic audit of the Central Bank’s accounts and proposals for a new electoral law appear to have inflamed political and sectarian tensions in the country, which is already reeling from a series of multiple crises, including an economic meltdown.

The new tensions come as the Cabinet formation process remained at a standstill in the absence of contacts between Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri and President Michel Aoun to resolve differences over the shape and makeup of a new Cabinet of specialists to deliver urgent reforms deemed essential to unlocking promised international aid to the crises-ridden country that is teetering on the verge of a total economic collapse.

In addition to rival factions’ jockeying for key ministerial seats, Hariri’s attempts to form an 18-member government of nonpartisan experts in line with the French initiative have hit snags over who would name the nine Christian ministers and the adoption of unified criteria in the formation process.

Parliament is the venue this week for a heated showdown between mainly Christian blocs and mostly Muslim blocs over proposals for a new electoral law, a highly divisive issue, and growing calls for conducting a forensic audit of the Central Bank’s accounts, a key demand of international donors.

At Speaker Nabih Berri’s request, the joint parliamentary committees met Wednesday to discuss a raft of draft electoral laws, mainly a controversial proposal presented by Berri’s parliamentary Development and Liberation bloc that calls for declaring Lebanon a single electoral district, which is staunchly opposed by Christian blocs. Under a single electoral district, Christian parties fear losing a large portion of their grip on power.

As expected, the committees’ deliberations did not yield any consensus on this proposal, but statements made by Christian MPs during and after the meeting reflected the political and sectarian divide on a new electoral law designed to replace the current proportional electoral system on whose basis the 2018 parliamentary elections were held.

After years of deliberations by various blocs, Parliament in 2017 approved a new electoral law based on proportional representation for the first time since Lebanon gained its independence in 1943. The law, which divided Lebanon into 15 major electoral districts and replaced the winner-takes-all system, had been praised by Christian blocs because it greatly improved Christian representation in the 128-member Parliament.

Ahead of the committees’ meeting, the two leading and rival Christian parties, the Free Patriotic Movement and the Lebanese Forces, apparently teamed up to oppose Berri’s proposal electoral law, while LF leader Samir Geagea called the proposed law a “conspiracy” against the Christian community.

“What is being proposed does not relate to changing the electoral law but to changing the political system in Lebanon,” LF MP George Adwan told reporters after the committees’ meeting. “Any electoral law or proposal must secure a true and effective representation. We consider that the current law, the first in 30 years, is close to ensuring a true and effective representation,” he said.

Adwan stressed that priority should be given to the formation of a new Cabinet and dealing with the people’s problems. “We are in a phase of collapse and disintegration,” he said.

MP George Okais from the LF’s 15-member parliamentary Strong Republic bloc called on Berri to withdraw the proposal “so that Lebanon can be safe.”

MP Alain Aoun from the FPM’s 24-member Strong Lebanon bloc headed by MP Gebran Bassil also criticized the proposed electoral law presented by Berri’s bloc.

“What is being proposed amounts to a change in the system, and not merely a technical change or a technical amendment of the electoral law,” Aoun told reporters after the committees’ meeting.

“We are faced with a proposal that touches on constitutional matters, namely a fundamental change in the political system, which is the abolition of confessionalism,” Aoun added. “The issue of abolishing political confessionalism must be discussed at a national dialogue table.”

On the eve of the committees’ meeting, Geagea described the electoral proposal by Berri’s bloc as a “conspiracy” against the Christians.

“When the subject of studying an electoral law was brought up again, we said at the time that we have doubts that there is a conspiracy in this issue. Now we longer have any doubts about this issue and it has become certain that there is a conspiracy in this matter,” Geagea told a news conference Tuesday after chairing a meeting of the LF’s bloc in Maarab, north of Beirut.

Taking an indirect swipe at Berri, Geagea said: “Is there a sane person proposing changing the electoral law at this time amid sharp divisions about an electoral law? We are today in dire need for [the formation] of a Cabinet.”

The negative response to its electoral proposal drew a rebuke from Berri’s bloc, which implicitly accused Christian blocs of staging “confessional mobilization.”

“The bloc expressed surprise over the systematic campaigns of sectarian and confessional mobilization in an unjustified and unprecedented manner about the proposal presented by the bloc’s MPs concerning a parliamentary election law and the election of the senate members, which has been under discussion by the joint committees for more than a year,” said a statement issued after the bloc’s meeting chaired by Berri at his Ain al-Tineh residence.

“In this context, the bloc asserts its openness to any constructive debate away from tensions and populist and provocative speeches in order to reach a modern electoral law that ensures a true and just representation and moves Lebanon from the logical of confessionalism and sectarianism to the logic of a modern civil state,” the statement said.

Parliament is also poised for another confrontation between Muslim and Christian blocs during a general parliamentary session which Berri had called for Friday to discuss Aoun’s letter to the legislature in which he stressed the importance of a forensic audit of the Central Bank’s books to prevent Lebanon from being viewed as a “rogue or failed” country by the international community.

Similarly, the FPM and the LF have joined ranks by calling for pressing ahead with carrying out a forensic audit of Banque du Liban’s accounts, days after the restructuring consultancy firm Alvarez & Marsal had pulled out of the audit because BDL refused to provide it with all the information and documents required to carry out the task, citing a banking secrecy law. The termination of the contract is a big setback for the authorities to uncover any suspicious accounts at BDL.

The FPM and the LF have launched a campaign against Central Bank Gov. Riad Salameh, accusing him of obstructing the audit. They also accuse Berri and the Future Movement of seeking to obstruct the BDL’s audit, media reports said.

In its statement Wednesday, Berri’s bloc refuted accusations that it was obstructing the BDL’s audit.

“The bloc called for the swift formation of a government of specialists as stipulated by the French initiative. The bloc affirmed that it was and will remain in support of conducting a comprehensive and complete forensic audit of all ministries, institutions, administrations and funds without exceptions, selectivity or spitefulness,” the statement said.

Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Joumblatt criticized conditions and counterconditions set by rival factions that are hindering the Cabinet formation.

“We are revolving in a vicious circle under the slogan of conditions and counterconditions, [proposing] names [of potential ministers] and counternames, electoral and presidential outbiddings and frail regional bets amid a huge change in the region that jeopardizes what remained of Lebanon’s culture, civilization and existence which the French president wanted to safeguard,” Joumblatt tweeted.

He was referring to the French initiative designed to lift Lebanon out of its worst economic and financial crisis since the 1975-90 Civil War.

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