BEIRUT — Despite all the doubts shrouding the municipal elections in Lebanon following a second extension of the parliament term and in light of the Lebanese political crisis, elections began May 8 and are set to be held over four consecutive Sundays ending May 29 and covering all Lebanese provinces.
These elections are bringing democratic life back to Lebanon, which has endured a presidential vacancy since May 2014 and the obstruction of official institutions in light of the political crisis and sharp divide in the country since former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated in 2005.
Also, the Council of Ministers is experiencing major disagreements over several issues, including national security, and has almost been disbanded on several occasions.
The parliament hasn't held legislative sessions since November, as the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and the Lebanese Forces Party have refused to attend any legislative session whose agenda does not include a new electoral law. Lebanon’s Muslims and Christians are both calling for a new electoral law that would give them fair and equal representation.
These two extensions were supported by all parliamentary groups except for FPM members, who submitted appeals to the Constitutional Council each time asking that use of the extension law be limited to exceptional circumstances. Such situations were indeed encountered during periods of unrest, in particular the clashes in Tripoli between Alawites and Sunnis in mid-May of 2013, and a series of explosions, most notably the one in Haret Hreik in the predominantly Shiite southern suburbs in January 2014.
Attempts to agree on an electoral law are ongoing. Parliament formed joint committees to address finance, budget, administration and justice, foreign affairs and migrants, national defense, interior and municipalities, and media and telecommunications. The joint committees started a series of meetings called by parliament Speaker Nabih Berri to discuss the proposed electoral law.
The first meeting of the joint committees was May 3; discussion was limited to five electoral proposals and draft laws. There are 17 proposals to be discussed.
The first five proposals include the majority single-member district system submitted by the Phalange Party; the mixed system including 64 parliament members according to the majority system and 64 members according to the proportional system as proposed by Berri; the mixed system proposed by the Lebanese Force, the Future Movement and the Progressive Socialist Party based on the election of 68 parliament members according to the majority system and 60 according to the proportional system; the proportional system submitted by Najib Mikati's government to the parliament in 2013 based on dividing Lebanon into 13 districts; and the Hezbollah-supported proposal of a proportional system based on a nationwide vote.
Will the municipal elections now underway and the parliament meetings to agree on a new law revive hope of successfully holding legislative elections in June 2017? If the parliamentary committees fail to reach an agreement, will Lebanon face a third extension of the parliament's term or will elections be held according to the old electoral law?
Ibrahim Kanaan, a parliament member representing the Change and Reform bloc, told Al-Monitor, “The fact that municipal elections were held confirms that there is no excuse for not holding the legislative elections, and that the extension of the parliament stems from political reasons.”
He added that imposing yet another extension would inevitably stir an angry public reaction. "Holding legislative elections requires a decision, and promulgating a new electoral law requires a [genuine] will," Kanaan said. "Will the meetings of the joint committees lead to an agreement on this law? Although the experiences of the FPM with the political parties on the subject of electoral law are not encouraging, everyone must now assume their responsibilities in light of the institutional paralysis. No party can afford to fail approving this law.”
Kanaan seemed optimistic that the legislative elections will be held next year. He even said he expects the elections to be held earlier than scheduled, since the current government bottleneck makes them imperative.
“Those who support the extension option cannot keep opposing the legislative elections, and the Christian understanding between the FPM and Lebanese Forces pushes the democratic process forward,” he said.
According to Berri, the parliament will never be extended again, and agreeing on a new electoral law will pave the way for conducting elections at any given moment. During the last session, on May 11, the deputies conveyed the possibility of ending the parliament’s term early, before June 2017.
Parliament member Ahmad Fatfat of the Future Movement told Al-Monitor, "The municipal elections confirm the Lebanese ... will to promote the democratic life. The municipal elections are an important electoral movement, even if they do not have the same political dimension as the legislative elections.”
Fatfat said he doesn't believe the successful municipal elections demonstrate that parliament term extensions weren't needed. “When the extensions were decided upon, the security situation was more difficult than it is today, in light of the lack of an electoral law agreed upon by all parties and the parliament's inability to pass a new law,” he said.
He confirmed that the Future Movement does not want an extension but prefers elections based on a new law.
Fatfat also confirmed that there is a collective will to prevent a third extension of the parliament, stressing that the Future Movement and Berri are exerting their utmost efforts to pass a new law. He also accused other parties of derailing discussions about the law by refusing to make compromises; he specifically blamed Hezbollah and the FPM for the failure to elect a president.
While optimism seems to prevail, an agreement doesn't appear imminent — and reaching an agreement is just the first step needed. Lebanon has to deal with internal constitutional and political challenges ranging from actually implementing the law and holding the elections all the way to dealing with the mother of all crises: the ongoing presidential vacuum.