‘Technical’ delay a mask for Parliament extension

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Lawmakers attend a Parliament

BEIRUT: A “technical” delay in the upcoming parliamentary elections is a smokescreen for an extension of Parliament’s mandate, political analysts warned Thursday, as rival political leaders remained poles apart over a new voting system.

The feuding parties’ failure to agree on a new electoral law has enhanced the possibility of a postponement of the June 9 parliamentary elections, or an extension of Parliament’s four-year mandate which expires on June 20.

“I see slim hope for an agreement on a new electoral law. Therefore, there is no harm in delaying the elections for six months. But it seems to me things are going in favor of extending Parliament’s mandate for two years,” Abdallah Bou Habib, Lebanon’s former ambassador to the U.S., told The Daily Star.

“The Lebanese will have to choose between a constitutional issue [holding the elections on time] and stability,” he said. “Extending Parliament’s mandate will lead to stability. But holding the elections based on a contentious voting law might destabilize the country.”

Bou Habib said any extension of Parliament’s mandate would take place under an agreement between the government and the opposition [March 14 parties], and with the consent of President Michel Sleiman.

Prime Minister Najib Mikati implicitly urged rival leaders to extend Parliament’s mandate after having failed to agree on a new voting system. He defended his signing of a decree calling for the elections to be held on time based on the current 1960 law, saying that conducting the polls was the government’s responsibility.

“But any other matter, be it a postponement [of the elections], or an extension [of Parliament’s mandate] is Parliament’s responsibility,” Mikati told a delegation from the Journalists’ Union that visited him at the Grand Serail.

“Since Parliament hasn’t been able to agree on a new electoral law, let [political factions] agree on steps they deem appropriate to ensure the continuity of legislation and avoid falling into a vacuum,” he added.

Shafik Masri, a professor of international law, also predicted an extension of Parliament’s term, citing the impasse on an electoral law and the bloody conflict in Syria as the causes.

“I expect Parliament’s mandate to be extended for at least one year because of the parties’ inability to agree on a new electoral law and also because of the internal Lebanese situation, which is being influenced by regional developments, particularly the situation in Syria and Iran,” Masri told The Daily Star.

“The extension of Parliament’s term will be justified for carrying out political and constitutional reforms, including the drafting of a new electoral law,” Masri predicted.

The United States and France this week reiterated their calls for the elections to be held on time.

Cabinet ministers and politicians from the rival March 8 and March 14 camps have predicted a “technical” delay in holding the elections in the absence of a new law to replace the 1960 legislation, which has been rejected by both sides of the political divide, including the Maronite Church. Used in the 2009 elections, the 1960 law adopts the qada as an electoral district and is based on a winner-takes-all system.

Attempts to reach a compromise deal to replace both the 1960 law and the Orthodox Gathering’s proposal with a hybrid vote system have so far failed to break the deadlock. The Future Movement and the Progressive Socialist Party are currently working together to draft a hybrid law that combines proportional representation with a winner-takes-all system.

Tewfic Hindi, a Lebanese politician close to the opposition March 14 coalition, said he opposed a “technical” election postponement because it would eventually lead to extending Parliament’s mandate.

“I’m for holding the elections on time on the basis of any law, the 1960 law, a hybrid law or a single district law. Priority should be given to holding the elections on time,” Hindi told The Daily Star.

“I’m against a technical delay in the elections [designed to give time] to search for an electoral law because this will lead to an extension of Parliament’s term,” he said. He warned of grave consequences if the elections aren’t held on time.

“The failure to hold the elections will lead to one of two things: Either an extension of Parliament’s mandate, which is a disaster, or a power vacuum, which is also a disaster that will lead to further weakening of the state,” Hindi said.

“Holding the elections based on a bad law is better than not holding them at all,” he added.

Bou Habib, the former envoy to Washington, said the Lebanese faced two contentious electoral laws that threatened to destabilize the country.

“The 1960 law will encounter a boycott and rejection by a majority of Christians and Shiites. Likewise, the Orthodox proposal will face a boycott and rejection by the Sunnis and Druze,” he said.

“Holding the elections based on either of these laws will lead to a political flare-up, which will lead to a security flare-up,” Bou Habib added.

International law professor Masri cited three possible options. One would see Speaker Nabih Berri convene Parliament to discuss the Orthodox proposal and the joint Future-PSP hybrid vote plan.

“The other option is for the parties to agree on an extension of Parliament’s mandate due to the current local and regional circumstances,” Masri said. The third scenario would involve holding the polls based on an amended version of the 1960 law.

However, political analyst Carol Maalouf was upbeat that an eleventh-hour deal would be reached by regional and international powers to allow for the elections to be held on time.

“Everything is possible. So far, indications on the ground, particularly administrative and logistical preparations, show that there are no elections,” Maalouf told The Daily Star.

“Yet, international and regional pressure on both the government and the opposition clearly shows that they want the elections to be held on time to avert a political vacuum that would lead to destabilization,” she said.

Maalouf, a political science lecturer at Notre Dame University, said she expected the rival parties to reach agreement on a hybrid vote law that combines proportional representation and a winner-takes-all system.

“A last-minute deal between regional powers, the GCC states, Iran, America and the European Union might lead to holding the elections on time in Lebanon,” Maalouf said.

The Daily Star - Lebanon