Electoral law sidelined as political divisions deepen

File - People wait to cast their vote during parliamentary elections in Haret Hreik, Sunday, June 7, 2009. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)

BEIRUT: Over four months after Parliament’s term was extended due to lack of consensus over a new electoral law, the issue of debating a new voting system has been largely sidelined in political circles.

MPs and experts expressed fears that the same excruciating deadlock would be repeated if the issue was only brought up again shortly before elections date, and result in Lebanon failing to hold elections now scheduled for November 2014.

The fact that the parliamentary subcommittee tasked with reaching an agreement on a new electoral law has stopped holding meetings is another factor that makes progress on the issue seem unlikely.

A source close to Speaker Nabih Berri said that drafting a new electoral law was still of extreme importance to the speaker.

“The electoral law is a priority for him,” said the source, who requested anonymity. “That’s why he included it in his initiative to break the political deadlock in the country.”

“The speaker was considering calling on the subcommittee to resume meetings, but discovered that there were deep divisions [over the draft law],” he added.

“They are not attending Parliament sessions called for by Speaker Berri, do you think they will attend subcommittee meetings?” the source asked. “Hence the speaker decided to include the electoral law in his initiative.”

Berri has been calling for a session since July, but so far Parliament has not convened due to lack of quorum. Sessions were boycotted by March 14 parties, Michel Aoun’s Change and Reform bloc and caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati.

In August, Berri proposed a five-day conclave of National Dialogue sessions for March 8 and March 14 leaders along with Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam to address divisive issues, including the new electoral law.

In May, Parliament extended its term for 17 months. The move came after rival political parties failed to agree on a new electoral law.

But Future Movement MP Ahmad Fatfat said that an electoral law could not be discussed at Dialogue sessions.

“The Dialogue table is not the place [to discuss the law]. It should be discussed by specialists, not political leaders. Let Speaker Nabih Berri call on the parliamentary subcommittee to resume its meetings and we will for sure attend its meetings,” Fatfat said.

Fatfat said that reaching an agreement over the electoral law requires an atmosphere of consensus, one that is so far lacking. “We still stick to the hybrid electoral law we proposed with the Lebanese Forces and we are ready to discuss it with the groups that oppose it.”

Fatfat said his Future bloc was not boycotting Parliament sessions in principle, but only opposed Berri’s agenda for the session.

Former Interior Minister Ziyad Baroud expressed regret that a new electoral law would no longer be a subject of discussion, but said this was to be expected. “No one believed that the reason for postponing elections was to agree on a new electoral law,” but rather  to help the country get through a period of time, Baroud said, "which we are still going through."

“It is unfortunate that Parliament’s extension was not tied to the drafting of a new electoral law within a specific period of time,” Baroud added.

He said that in 1967, municipal elections were postponed under the pretext that the electoral law was bad and Lebanon ended up having local elections 31 years later.

Baroud was a member of the so-called Butros Commission, tasked by the Cabinet in 2005 with working to put together the draft electoral law. It eventually proposed a draft law combining proportional representation with a winner-takes-all system in 2006.

Baroud said that the committee proposed introducing a constitutional clause to prevent the amendment of the electoral law a year prior to elections date. “With this, candidates and voters would know what electoral law they have to deal with a year ahead of polls.”

Baroud said the reasons delaying elections were political and not technical, adding that discussions over a new electoral law should not wait for the political crisis to be resolved.

“We cannot keep everything pending until the political deadlock is resolved. We all know that we will eventually have a Doha-like settlement in light of any American-Russian agreement or any American-Iranian Agreement,” Baroud said. “If we don’t have a new electoral law ready by then, we will end up rushing the new electoral law.”

In May, the government appointed members to the Supervisory Commission on Elections Campaign. However, the necessary decrees for the seven-member-body to start its work have yet to be issued by the government.

Khalil Gebara, a former member of the SCEC which supervised the 2009 parliamentary polls, said the fact that the decrees were not issued indicated the absence of a will to discuss an electoral law altogether.

“It indicates that there is no will to reopen a serious dialogue on the electoral process in Lebanon in terms of the law and the election management,” said Gebara, also a lecturer at the American University of Beirut.

“It is now October. Elections are scheduled to be held within 13 months. If this is not the appropriate time to work on an electoral law, then when is?” Gebara said.

Gebara said if they want to work, members could start with regulations, and hiring and training staff.

Kataeb MP Elie Marouni said he feared that Lebanon would fail to hold elections on time again.

“In six statements by the Kataeb’s politburo, the party has called for drafting an electoral law and holding elections even before the extended term of Parliament term expires,” he said.

“I am afraid that we will reach November [2014] and will have to postpone polls again due to our failure to reach an agreement on an electoral law that provides fair representation for Christians,” he said.

Gebara voiced similar fears. He said that Parliament had, under the 1960 law, extended its term in 1972 for 20 years due to the impossibility of holding elections because of the Civil War.

“Are we facing the 1960 law curse again? Will we witness successive extensions of Parliament’s mandate, just like what happened with the Parliament which was elected based on the 1960 law [in 1972]?” he asked.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 11, 2013, on page 4.




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