BEIRUT: Holding parliamentary elections on time, even if that means their taking place before presidential polls, would break Lebanon’s political deadlock, according to MP Alain Aoun.
Speaking to The Daily Star in an interview at his office in Beirut, Aoun dismissed as mere pretexts the security concerns some have pointed to as a reason for delaying the general elections.
Instead, he said, going to the polls in November was vital.
“Parliamentary elections could be the start of the solution. They will produce facts, particularly on the Christian level, which should be reflected in the presidential election,” said Aoun, who is part of Michel Aoun’s Change and Reform parliamentary bloc.
By determining which Christian group enjoyed the strongest representation in the country, he said it would become clear who was eligible to have a strong say over who should be Lebanon’s new president, hopefully bringing to an end a nearly four-month power vacuum in one of the country’s top posts.
“If all parties recognize these facts and acknowledge the result of parliamentary elections, then they will lead to a solution,” Aoun said, adding that once a new president was elected, a new government could be formed and the country’s state institutions could be revived.
The Future Movement opposes the idea of holding parliamentary elections before a president has been elected, arguing that this could lead to total power vacuum. According to the Constitution, the current government would have to resign once a new Parliament is elected and Lebanon would have to wait for another Cabinet to be appointed. The current Cabinet took nearly 11 months to form, and without a president, there would be no one to hold consultations with MPs over the nomination of a new prime minister, as stipulated by the Constitution.
While Aoun admitted that “the situation will not be comfortable,” he said that total vacuum would not grip the country. “We will have a new Parliament and a caretaker government. Parliament will have the duty to elect a president.”
Above all, Aoun emphasized that the fragile security situation in Lebanon was not a valid excuse to delay parliamentary elections.
Last month, Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk said security services had warned against holding parliamentary elections due to instability in the country.
“It is shocking not to have elections in the entire country just because there is a security problem in a limited geographical area, given that elections took place in countries like Syria and Iraq,” Aoun said, referring to the border town of Arsal.
The northeastern town has been volatile ever since last month, when militants from ISIS and the Nusra Front occupied it for five days, and captured more than 30 Army soldiers and policemen. The Nusra Front has since released seven and ISIS has executed two, leaving at least 22 still in captivity. The perceived slowness of the government to solve the issue has ignited tensions across the country.
“If there is a sensitive situation in a certain district, this does not apply for other districts,” he said.
“I believe that the reasons [behind the proposed extension of Parliament’s term] are political rather than security-related. Some believe that the status quo in the country should not change until the picture in the region becomes clear.”
On the subject of the captured men, Aoun said that the latest meeting of a specially formed crisis cell working toward their release had been productive.
At the meeting, top security officials were tasked with laying down a plan to bring back order and security to Lebanon, particularly in Arsal.
“This came after a hesitant stance which unfortunately wasted time and raised losses,” Aoun said.
The Cabinet should be able to use a combination of indirect negotiations with the militants, mediation and military force in order to solve the problem, according to Aoun.
But the situation in Arsal should not be used as a pretext to delay an election, he said, as this would involve extending the term of Parliament for a second time, which the Change and Reform bloc staunchly opposes.
Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun and then-President Michel Sleiman filed challenges to last May’s extension before the Constitutional Council, but the body could not meet to look into these challenges due to the lack of a quorum because Shiite and Druze members boycotted the session.
Asked whether he believed another extension of Parliament’s term was inevitable, Aoun said: “If there is a huge majority in favor of extension, I believe we will experience a scenario similar to the one of last year.”
One of the biggest obstacles to the Parliament-presidential election conundrum is the lack of a consensus over a presidential candidate. March 8 party members have largely refused to attend voting sessions for a new president until a figure has been agreed on beforehand.
March 8’s candidate is Michel Aoun – but he is controversial and divisive. Some have accused him of obstructing presidential elections by refusing to withdraw his candidacy, something MP Aoun vehemently denied. March 14 is supporting Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea in his bid for the top Christian role in the country.
Aoun also talked about a proposal made by the FPM’s leader in June, which would amend the Constitution to allow the president to be elected via a popular vote, as a way of ensuring proper Christian representation in the voting process.
“Get us a way in which Christians would have a strong say in the election of a president, whether General Aoun or anybody else, and then the problem will be solved,” MP Aoun said.
“We are raising a fundamental problem. Are the Christians having a say in presidential election based on our sectarian system? The mechanism by which presidents have been elected since the  Taif Agreement is marginalizing the will of Christians. We now want to regain this will.
“But we got a negative response,” he said, referring to the March 14 coalition’s position on the proposal.
He dismissed an initiative announced by the March 14 coalition earlier this month, in which it voiced its readiness to agree with March 8 rivals on a consensus president other than Aoun or Geagea, as not having provided a real solution.
“It is pushing those who represent Christians furthest away from the presidential election ... this marginalizes Christians rather than boosting their presence.”
Aoun said an agreement on a president who truly represented Christians was another way to ensure that Christians would be properly represented by the final choice. For Aoun, the need to have such a president was not about placing Michel Aoun in the post, but rather was a necessary condition that should be fulfilled whoever the president was.
Separately, Aoun reiterated his group’s opposition to establishing Syrian refugee camps inside Lebanon. “We do not want to encourage Syrians to stay ... Establishing camps inside Lebanon will gradually make the presence of Syrian refugees permanent.”
However, he said that his bloc was not against the establishment of refugee camps in the no-man’s-land between Lebanon and Syria’s borders, something that is likely to soon become a reality.